POST | 2018

Saving Money in Design Fees - Good Idea, or Bad?

February 4, 2018 AT 11:14

An interesting survey was done a few years ago where homeowners who had completed projects were interviewed about their satisfaction levels. Those who had paid more in design fees (e.g. to an Architect or, in some cases, a licensed professional Interior Designer) were overwhelmingly more satisfied than those who had paid low consulting fees. Why this surprising result?

In short, those who had paid higher design fees had simply received more service. They had received more attention to the actual design, the plans were tailored to specific project requirements and client needs and thus contained more complete information and were clear to build from. As a result, these owners had fewer problems during construction and the architects were available to help solve problems all the way to a happy building or home occupancy. Conversely, the study found that those who had paid the lowest fees had exponentially more problems and were far more prone to cost overages and, in some cases, even lawsuits.

The long-term value of professional guidance far outweighs the initial costs.

A few people have the attitude that every dollar spent on professional guidance is a dollar that is displaced for the actual construction. In reality, a good architect or interior designer is like a good accountant or attorney - the professional can often save the homeowner much, if not most, of their fees through the avoidance of problems and surprises, more intelligent and cost-effective choices, as well as increased market value. The overall experience is likely to be far more pleasant dealing with professionals, as well. The addage, "If you can't get it right at first, there's always a second time" comes to mind, but this is an avoidable lesson to learn for a costly investment you should only have to go about once when renovating or building a new luxury residence or commercial building.

Unfortunately many people have witnessed the results when people shop for the cheapest architect or set of house plans they can find online in order to get by enough to obtain the building permit and then ask a builder to try and build from them. Important information and details are omitted "to save money" preparing these plans, such as most of the specifications (standards for concrete, wood framing, tile and cabinet selections and layouts, etc.), and only provide very generic plans open to interpretation by all who read them. The homeowner is then put in the inexperienced position of having to make hundreds of important design decisions under the intense pressure of construction, with no idea of what the ultimate price will be.

Furthermore, along with this lack of drawing information, the contractor must make guesses as to the real design intent and will have to work out many construction issues in the field, rather than having them worked out on paper beforehand. If the contractor guesses wrong, everyone is unhappy. To compensate (in other words, cover their financial risk) the contractor adds a significant amount of money to the contract to deal with all of these 'unknowns'.

Look around your city and observe that many local design-build commercial buildings (where the builder leads and controls the outcome) for small and medium-size businesses are based strictly on low-fee procurement strategies and often underwhelming lack-lustre outcomes. Here, the design-build contractor insulates many of the problems that arise from owners often at the expense of doing a truly excellent job to provide the best value from a design, function and cost viewpoint with opportunities missed.

Recently our practice was not awarded a new residential project, instead going to a local 'architectural technologist' (draftsperson) whose fees were approximately a third our own. While the prospective client later expressed regret about not hiring One One Ten (since they liked our firm's careful approach and design capabilities best, aside from cost), the bottom line price was just too seductive at first. Did this potential client really understand the difference in the services they would be getting? Would that other 'designer' provide enough exploration and design options to consider? Would the same training and competencies be present, such as siting the residence to take advantage of the property, properly space planning for movement and program adjacencies? Provide 3-dimensional visualizations or walkthroughs to ensure they understand more clearly? Assist the homeowner in making every finish and product selection? Provide a set of construction plans that left nothing to the contractor's imagination (for a clear apples-to-apples accurate bid)? Include structural engineering and peace-of-mind? Directly facilitate getting the project through the planning, bylaws, development and building permit approvals and meeting all safety or energy codes? Assist the homeowner in getting bids or negotiating a contract with a contractor? Make regular site visits during construction to observe the quality of the work was in conformance with the design intent and assist with any issues as they came up?

Different architects, designers and 'draftsmen' have very different levels of service.

The moral is clear. Before you hire someone, make sure that you fully understand what level of service you will be getting and - more importantly - need for your project. Think twice before shopping the lowest possible fee. You always end up paying more than what you thought you might save when construction comes later, not to mention the frustration, stress and headaches along the way.


Nothing is more exciting than designing a new residence, commercial property or tenant improvement for yourself or business. Nothing will affect the success of your project more than the right architect with the best skillset and knowledge. Our practice utilizes an engaging Discovery Consultation to help clients make real progress and reach their building goals without wasting precious time and money or repeating steps.

If you feel ready to discuss your early project ideas, please contact Principal Architect Spencer Court to find out more about our blueprint for success or to begin your tailored proposal to get you on track making real progress.

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