If you're planning a building project, it helps to understand common architectural fees upfront. This way, you'll be able to better budget and prepare as you move forward. Let's take a closer look at these fees and the logic behind them.
How architects set their fees
There's a reason that contractor teams often bid on specific projects. No two are going to price a new build exactly the same. Rather, their fees will vary depending on their subcontractor relationships, professional experience, access to materials, and more.
Likewise, there is no standard fee schedule for architects.
In fact, there have been two antitrust proceedings, one in 1972 and one in 1990, that prohibit the American Institute of Architects (AIA) from offering fee recommendations to architectural firms. Instead, the law requires that each firm develop its own set of competitive fees without collusion.
Without set or advertised prices to compare, it can be difficult to gauge what each firm charges, and word-of-mouth estimates are inaccurate, at best. As a result, even clients can feel left in the dark about how much architects deserve for the time they put into each project and how that effort affects their bottom-line price.
While this may be true, there are still certain fee structures that most architects will follow. Current and future clients should familiarize themselves with these and discuss any questions with their architect before moving ahead on a job.
Let's review the basic structures you can expect to encounter.
Hourly rates for each position
Most architects will charge clients on a per-hour basis, depending on how much time they put into a given project. While some will quote the full project this way, others will only charge hourly for a certain part of the design process before moving to a more permanent fee structure.
Of course, prices will vary depending on the scale of the project and your location, but expect to pay an hourly rate of around $60 if you're working with a junior architect. Working with a firm's principal? You could pay $125 or more per hour.
Let's review a quick architectural fee breakdown, based on the four different role levels within an average architectural firm:
The principal is the person who owns and operates the firm. You'll pay the highest for these services, coming in at around $125 to $175 per hour.
Second-in-command, the project manager will have around 10 years or more of experience and is responsible for overseeing multiple projects and teams.
In addition to design work, the PM also helps with client communication, budgeting, and scheduling. Expect to pay around $95 per hour.
Junior Architect II
This position requires between six and eight years of experience. An Architect II will manage the daily oversight of a specific project. You'll pay around $80 for these services.
Junior Architect I
An Architect I has between three and five years of experience in the field. They will handle certain parts of a project, following directions given by others on the team. This position has an hourly rate of around $65.
Setting a cap on hourly rates
If you know the design you want and can keep the process straightforward with few changes, paying by the hour can be an ideal way to go.
However, although this is a straightforward way to set a budget, keep in mind that it's easy to underestimate the number of hours an architectural team will devote to your project. Thus, to avoid sticker-shock, it's smart to set a cap on the number of hours allotted by adding a "not-to-exceed" clause in your contract.
Doing so can help you direct and focus your efforts, as you know that once you reach that cap, you'll either have to renegotiate the project or tackle the task yourself! For this reason alone, many architects will require per-hour pricing if the scope of a project is undefined or lacks direction.
Rates per square foot
You could also encounter architects that charge on a per-square-foot basis. This is also common on smaller projects that are simple to estimate in this regard. It will vary based on location.
For instance, an architect in Southern California can demand a fee of $3.50 or higher per square foot, while one in Texas might only charge $0.75. In either case, this type of fee structure is often easier for architects to quote on new build projects, as remodels can have too many moving parts and unknowns.
To help keep costs in check, architects may limit clients to a set number of revisions. Otherwise, if they agree to a per-square-foot price and the project extends or changes, they could be tasked with producing more drawings and documents than their time is worth. If that does happen, they may move to an hourly fee.
When calculating architectural fees for residential projects, smaller-scale jobs may only require minimal input from a firm.
As such, many will quote such a project as a fixed-rate fee. This means the architect will tell the client one number, and that will cover the work required to complete the job.
This kind of fee structure requires that an architect understand all the project details in a clear and concise manner. Otherwise, surprises could pop up and all of a sudden, the fee doesn't cover the time involved.
To this end, many architects will charge an hourly fee in the initial stages of a project, while they're still ironing out all of the fine-print details. Then, once they've cemented the design plans, they'll move to a fixed-fee structure.
Rates as percentage of construction costs
While per-hour, per-square-foot and fixed-fee rates cover most architect fees related to residential design, large-scale projects may use a different structure.
In this case, the architect's services may be included in the overall construction costs, which also include contractor and subcontractor work.
Here's how this setup operates:
A client will hire an architectural firm to come up with a design for a building. Once it's complete, the firm will send the project out for contractors to bid. The client will then select a contractor to work with.
From there, the client and contractor work out a separate price for the project, incorporating the architect's work as a percentage of the total cost. Depending on the size of the firm and the scale of the project, the architect's fee could range from 8% to 20%.
Understand what your architect usually charges before signing on the dotted line or beginning any work. And, take note of any whose percentage is significantly lower than any other you've interviewed.
If the price surprises you, it could be because the firm only provides basic services, such as the drawings necessary to obtain a building permit. At the same time, fees on the higher end likely cover a full package, with services meant to last the duration of the construction process.
To make sure you're as in-the-know about the budget as possible, you can request that your architect work with a contractor that they've worked with in the past, choosing someone they know and trust to take on the work. This way, you can eliminate the guesswork that accompanies the bidding process.
The value and vision behind architectural fees
From single-family homes to high-rises, architects are at the helm of some of the most important structures in the world.
Yet, it's easy to misunderstand or misgauge the critical role they play in the overall construction process. Without detailed plans to work from, even the greatest builders in the world could miss the mark. Architects take the time to ensure that buildings aren't just beautiful, but are functional, safe and sustainable, as well.
Knowing this, architectural fees become less of a pain point and more of an investment in the integrity of your project.
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