How Do Architects Add Value?

Photo from Flickr © Alaina B.

True Story Below (I held my tongue)

Anonymous Developer: We've had a lot of delays. We've run over schedule by almost a year.

Me: Oh yeah? What's the problem? Permits?

Developer: Yeah, permits, plancheck…well, and the architect.

(My ears perk up – he doesn't know I'm an architect)

Me: Huh. What happened? Did the architect mess something up?

Developer: Well, I like him. He gives me a good price. I use him because he is cheap. But since he's a one-man shop the less urgent tasks get pushed aside by the urgent tasks. So it takes longer to get the plans done.

Me: Wow. That stinks.

Developer: Yeah.

Me: So what have the delays cost you?

Developer:  About $20k a month.

So, cheap architect or an expensive architect? You tell me.



Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.

14 Responses

  1. Recently I was called out by an associate who knows me well enough to recommend me for the task at hand. An owner had chosen to hire an experienced thirty-year veteran expediter to push his Temporary tent structure for an auction. After 14 mos., it was becoming clear to the owner that the expediter knew nothing about the permitting itself, making errors on a daily basis. When I jumped in to secure the permit in less than a day, I was exacerbated by the expediter for making them look bad. I was not to tell the owner, or any of the other personnel at City Hall. Ridiculous. I told it like it was, and made sure that all involved understood why the project went wrong, costing the owner over a million dollars in lost revenue. As Peter Eisenman once told me “architects are the guardians of the real.” Lately, however, it seems that many lesser skilled have been working overtime to “defraud” owners by promoting the assumption that architects are superfluous. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is up to you to defend yourself, and the profession because as we sit idly by, and be polite, our clients, and prospects are being swindled by puss and by boot.

  2. Good, cheap or fast. It is possible to get a combination of any two but not all three. I have decided that good and fast work best for the client, the builder and myself.

  3. The notion that we need to suffer in poverty to produce good work is a romantic one that we habitually embrace, bonding over it fraternally while we simultaneously race each other to give away our services. More and more, developers are earning demonstrably higher returns with good design. They will take that design on the cheap, however, if we keep undervaluing what we bring to the table. If Architects won’t pull ourselves out of our downward fee spiral, we shouldn’t expect developers to do it for us.

  4. Even if you point this out to them they usually still say they can’t pay it. What I have found though is they can’t pay it up front. If you can work out a deal where they pay you later like when the construction loan is approved, or they sell their spec project or start generating income, you may find them more open to this kind of arrangement. You still need enough up front to keep the lights on but maybe your profit is delayed and they may even be willing to pay more for the postponement.

    1. Brad, great point. I’ve often wondered if architects could offer financing for their fees? It allows cars and houses to sell for top dollar, why not design?

    2. Brad
      This type of arrange is called a “success fee”. In other words you are paid your fee once the project has reached a successful milestone. I would also suggest that as the architect is also running with part of the project risk, the fee should be somewhat higher than the traditional billing method.

  5. “If you lie down with dogs with fleas, you will get fleas”. So it is with doing business with developers. There are always exception to the rule, however the very nature of a developer is to get as much done with other people’s money as possible.

    I found the follwing economic axioms to be particularly appropriate for just this situation.

    It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. For when you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because what you paid for is incapable of doing what it was bought to do.
    The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot; it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is wise to add something for the risk you take and if you do that you might as well pay for something better.
    – John Ruskin, The Price Perspective

    The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of a cheap price is forgotten.
    – anonymous

  6. Even in our beloved field; “you get what you pay for”.

    I appreciate that you are addressing this aspect of our profession.
    Let me know how Building Content can help.

    1. Developers like this is why I am destined to be a poor architect.
      Im just not interested in working for/With anyone who doesn’t have the clients outcome as their main concern.
      As a smart Australian Architect Glenn Murcutt once said;
      “The compromise you make today, will inform the quality of client you get tomorrow”.
      Very difficult to be moralistic n such difficult financial times, but when it comes down to it, thats all we might have left.

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