Questions and Answers
about Architects and Their Services

  1. Can I hire an architect to "draw up the blueprints" after I have purchased a building or decided exactly what I want to do?
  2. Can't I just hire a building contractor?
  3. Can anyone else but a licensed (registered) architect provide design services for me?
  4. Is there any obligation for a consultation visit?
  5. Why do many architects refuse to bid to obtain commissions?
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I.  Can I hire an architect to "draw up the blueprints" after I have purchased a building or decided exactly what I want to do?

Although this is the conception most laymen have concerning the role of an architect, to use an architect in this limited capacity often results in a final product that is less than ideal either in cost, function, or investment potential. Architects have been called in after a building was acquired for renovation, when certain factors made it either very expensive to adapt for the intended purpose, or else where cost, code, or space factors were not completely understood. For a reasonable hourly rate, the architect can help you prepare comparisons of your available options, and guide you in determining exactly how much space is needed. Often, the only measuring stick an owner has is an existing building he or she has had experience with, which may not be ideal for the intended purpose. Also, flexible planning can get more usable space out of less area if the proportions and structural configuration are conducive. It is also generally desirable to obtain an existing building where key work was done with "yesterday's dollars", when price is appropriate, and comparative energy costs as a criterion cannot be overstressed. In a similar manner, new building size is quite dependent on how it is planned, and the easiest economy is to build more efficient space. If the property is for investment purposes, paying the architect the fee for schematics prior to purchasing the building also allows for you to write off that portion of the fee as an up-front expenditure, rather than waiting and depreciating the entire fee with the building.

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II. Can't I just hire a building contractor?

The Architect is the single professional who has the training and experience to guide you through the entire building process. A Contractor is not permitted in Pennsylvania to broker the services of an architect, and a "Design-Build" firm must have at least 50% ownership by an architect or engineer, so beware of persons offering you "architectural services" unless they are legally qualified to do so. The State requires that the Owner contract directly with the Architect or qualified Design-Build firm. There are some changes in legislation in this regard, but the buyer should beware. While many are attracted to the Design/Build concept due to its contractual simplicity, you have no advocate to look out strictly for your interests unless you hire an Owner's Representative which reintroduces some complexity, so some owners have received less for their total dollar than could have been the case otherwise. While some very innovative work and careful attention by the architect/partner is sometimes the case, in many other cases the process minimizes the architect's involvement, designs do not tend to be as innovative or as well detailed, and material substitutions which are not beneficial to the owner often occur. Documents are almost never as comprehensive, and coordination better done on paper often gets left to be done in the field, which is not an ideal situation. Having the contractor control the design the work generally results in less innovative solutions, and often decisions result to reduce the initial bottom line with the unwise consequence of increasing life cycle costs. This is particularly true with finishes and building systems. Only the independent architect can be fully objective, since he does not profit from the construction itself. While minor nonstructural renovation work not involving a change in building use or egress patterns can be performed from a contractor's drawing, people who understand the building process often use an architect even for those projects because no other professional has the rigorous blend of education and experience that helps you make sound decisions independent of someone else's business plan. It is best to draw from the independent architect all the help he or she can provide, and also hire an experienced professional contractor to apply his or her valuable expertise, in order that the gifts of both types of individuals can be used to their fullest potential to make your project a success.

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III. Can anyone else but a licensed (registered) architect provide design services for me?

In Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the law is clear that only registered architects are permitted to design new buildings or renovations that involve a change in use, structural, and egress changes, except for a person who wishes to design his own home, and except for engineers who may design buildings such as industrial and process facilities which are predominantly engineering oriented. For renovations not involving change of use, egress changes, or structural changes, any person may design the renovations as long as no charge is made for his(her) services, and that the work is not represented as being equivalent to that of an architect. Often Contractors and office tenants do this kind of work. Some other states exempt certain buildings from the Architect's law. However, caution should be shown toward anyone, whether Contractor, student, or a nonregistered person with architectural training, who offers to do the work and have it "sealed" by a Licensed Architect. This practice is patently illegal, since by law all work on the design documents must be performed by the Architect or a person employed by him who is under his direct supervision. Legal aspects aside, the extensive educational, apprenticeship, and examination process required to become a licensed architect, which takes a minimum of eight years, but usually longer, is needed to assure that your best interests, as well as safety for the public, are preserved on your project. Since the design aspect represents a relatively small portion of total project costs, and irreversible decisions are made at this stage of the project, any "economies" gained by skimping on design can quickly turn into greater expenditures later to make corrections, if indeed they can be made at that point in time at all.

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IV. Is there any obligation for a consultation visit?

If you wish to meet me briefly at my office in order to interview me for your project, or if the scope of work has already been defined and put in written form and it is desired to simply obtain a fee proposal, there is no charge for the first office visit. However, most of the time clients wish for me to see the project site, and are desirous of receiving advice and/or suggestions as part of the process of deciding who they wish to "perform the surgery". Just as is the case with just about any professional, we must charge for technical consultations. Beware of offers for "free consultations" which seldom give you any usable information. A one to two hour field consultation/meeting is a good way to see how knowledgeable the design professional is about YOUR project, to check the "chemistry" between people and also for you to see what we are like to work with. Many people use this as a way to get professional opinions on their ideas as well. Ralph Charell in his book, "Satisfaction Guaranteed", recommends that if you are trying to decide between two architects, it can be cost effective to have each prepare a concept plan or sketch that you can use to evaluate whose approach to your project may be the most compatible with what you are looking for. Since these are not detailed, they can be prepared in several hours' time for a reasonable expenditure, and may represent your best single investment on your project. When you have confirmed that you desire a continuing relationship, you may arrange for any amount of services you desire, with either fixed amounts or an hourly rate agreed upon in advance. For me to perform feasibility studies, a retainer of 1/3 to 1/2 (depending on size) of the estimated or fixed amount must be received in advance, with the balance due in stages or at completion, depending upon the scope of the work. Other work is billed as agreed by contract.

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V. Why do many architects refuse to bid to obtain commissions?

Every person has a different manner of working, and there are VAST differences in the level of attention given to individual projects. Unless the client is a frequent user of professional design services, the level of attention needed is rarely known. Therefore, scopes of services requested are often vague and open to considerable interpretation. Just recently, a township rejected the low bid of an architect who did decide to bid because they found out they would be getting "repackaged" information he had already sold to another township. Each project requires (and deserves) specific attention, and the lowest bid can be a problem at least three ways:

  • The bid is missing something, and the RFP is vague enough so that the low bidder can claim an "extra" and the final price can be considerably higher than that of more conscientious competitors who from experience quoted all the needed work. The "low-ball" price seldom includes much thoroughness, and the costs for field issues makes it the falsest of economies.
  • The rates are lower because less experienced people are working on the project, and may not have expertise or experience to find innovative ways to better solve the problem or avoid expensive details that may work havoc with the budget.
  • The firm may not be scheduling the work in such a way as to get it done without delaying the start of construction. Delays can be expensive and cost a multiple of any monies "saved".

Since architectural services represent a very minor fraction of total costs, spending the least time at this stage in order to have the lowest design fee can adversely affect the total construction costs or result in a building that does not really meet the client's needs or optimize income. Each project is unique, and requires a level of service appropriate to the situation. A repeat or adaptation of a project designed for someone else is rarely the best and most cost-effective solution for you. Nonetheless, using time-tested materials and procedures can avoid problems down the road that go with extreme innovation. The size of the firm should also be evaluated. Larger firms can seldom give smaller projects the personal attention they deserve, and may have less flexible operating procedures, while small firms may not have the flexibility to produce a large project on a tight schedule, nor the very specialized expertise needed on certain types of projects. The Professional Architect is interested in getting you the most for your money, and in having a client whose satisfaction with his or her project will result in other jobs coming his way. That is why professionals desire that you make your selection based on competence and experience related to your project, and you can almost always arrive at a fee that is fair to everyone.

Beyond that, it is good to consider that due to the research and knowledge needed to execute any project, the more experienced the person, and the higher the degree of office automation, the fewer hours will be needed to execute the project. The higher rate commanded by more experienced/equipped professionals is often offset by the reduced time needed, which results in a better project for about the same fee, and often delivered more quickly. In any event, just as in law, dentistry, medicine, or accounting, using the best person for the project is really your highest economy, since you are relying on your architect to help you with decisions about expenditures many times his fee, and those decisions will be critical in determining the success of your endeavor.

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