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Architects Need to be Viewed as Value, NOT Expense by Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAFM

“We aren’t sure if we are going to hire an Architect yet.”

A truly terrifying sentence to hear…and sadly I hear it quite often when meeting with potential clients.


This usually stems from one of two misconceptions, one of which we are going to discuss.

1) They don’t think they need an Architect or are required to have one. (Both are usually wrong, but we’ll have to tackle this topic another time.)

2) They believe it is cost prohibitive or expensive to hire an Architect for their project.

I could spend this entire article explaining why Architects are invaluable to your project, but what it comes down to is budget, and the reality is Architects will help CONTROL the cost of your project.

Architects are not an added expense; they will SAVE you money in the long term.

That sentence always raises eyebrows and doubts when I bring it up. If you hire an Architect, and their fees are a sizable portion of a construction budget, how is money being saved? Simple…whatever money you are saving by not hiring an Architect, you will pay MULTIPLES due to the issues that WILL arise.

You most likely wouldn’t enter a courtroom without a lawyer, even though you could…So why would you enter a construction project without an Architect?

To “double down” on the legal example I just provided, all construction projects begin with complicated legal contracts. Architects live and breathe these documents every day, and can you help through reviewing them and making sure you sign a “fair” agreement. If you doubt this, just go online and read the stories of clients entering projects without adequate contracts…the results are horrifying.

Architects provide infinite value due to their creativity, knowledge and experience, and literal passion for their craft. (There are MANY careers that are less stressful and much easier, but we all stay for a reason.) However, in my experience whenever there is doubt about hiring an Architect it is always about money. How can it not be? There are very few things in life that devour money more than construction.

Let’s delve into how your money can be misspent without an Architect. One of the aspects of an Architect’s involvement is the creation of Construction Documents. These are NOT just floor plans. Everyone has accepted that Architects draw floor plans, yet that is a SMALL portion of what we do. Construction Documents are a detailed set of graphic instructions on how a building is going to be put together. Yes, it has floor plans, but it also has other drawing types, construction details, etc.

It may seem obvious that a building should need this detailed set of documents, but I often have clients who only want a floor plan that they can later take to a builder to just “get it built.” The logic being if a building can be built without hiring an Architect, why not just do that? Well, not only will the quality of your building be SIGNIFICANTLY lower, but paradoxically your cost is going to be DRAMATICALLY higher.

That explanation has no malice towards the construction industry, the reality is however that they are a business and need to stay profitable to survive. However, without a clear set of instructions or scope, they must make A LOT of assumptions and educated guesses on what they need to provide. Sadly, this protection of their bottom line most often results in more money for the client. Let’s elaborate on this…

Looking at a floor plan, the contractor sees that a door is required to be built for the building. You do not need to be an Architect to know there are A LOT of doors in the world, varying in quality, type, and price. Since the builder does not know which door the client is going to end up with, they provide a price to install one of the higher end and pricier ones. This is not out of greed, but because they can’t end up paying more for a door then they charge the client. Where this problem is exacerbated however, is when they not only have to charge more for this theoretical door, but because there is going to be time spent discussing with the client, even more money is charged. So, in this scenario a client must pay the most money for a door (plus extra markup) they haven’t even picked yet! Or even worse, the lowest price door is included, but many unexpected costs are raised later during construction.

An Architect’s set of Construction Documents can’t stop this markup, but they can clearly state which door is being selected and needs to be priced out. The simple reality is this…Every question a contractor must ask about your project, is going to cost you MORE money. An Architect can help answer these questions before the contractor submits prices to keep costs accurate. In fact, the experience and knowledge Architects have allows us to answer questions you didn’t know you had.

This example is for ONE item, out of thousands that go into a construction project. It may not seem like a lot, but a building has MANY items that need resolution. Sticking with our door example, what about the door hardware, the hinges, the door finish, the frame, the wall it is placed in, the door threshold, the flooring beneath it, the wall finish, etc. There’s a lot more that needs to be designed in a building, not to mention all the things that most don’t see in the walls, ceilings, and floor. Having all these things decided with snap decisions while construction has begun is not only inefficient, but expensive.

But the value of your Architect does not end when design is finished.

Many clients understand they need an Architect to craft their set of Construction Documents. But they then question why an Architect’s involvement would be needed during construction. If the Architect designs, and the Contractor builds, why would you retain an Architect during construction?

To help keep costs and issues controlled.

Construction is difficult, complicated, and very involved. Perhaps I don’t have the same type of project exposure and experience as others…but I can confidently say I have NEVER had a project effortlessly move through construction and have no dilemmas or “emergencies.”

If you hired an Architect for your project, its most likely because you were not an expert in the field of construction. (No shame in that.) So why would you want part of your home or building demolished and then try to deal with and resolve any issues or problems that arise that you are not comfortable or able to handle? Things will come up, conditions are different beneath a floor or wall than expected, a material will take too long to arrive, codes and regulations have changed and require your design to be altered, the list goes on and on. (And I’ve personally seen all of them.)

Sadly, anything that could have been resolved during design will cost SIGNIFICANTLY more during construction. This is also when you as the client have almost NO leverage, so an Architect’s help is vital.

The contractor will always choose the easiest solution, not the most cost effective. They will get paid either way. Having an experienced professional in your court with the knowledge base on alternative solutions can be priceless. Architects can give multiple solutions to the same problem and help clients assess the best solution for them. Architects have done it before no matter what "it" is in construction and have knowledge in the most cost-effective method to achieve clients’ goals. If we haven’t seen it, we have the resources to figure it out quickly. This is literally what we do all day, solve building problems. To keep this comparison in terms of money, an issue may take a client four hours to figure out, where we can get it in ten minutes…Time is money for EVERYONE.

While it is not our favorite skill to advertise, the reality is Architects have mastered the “art” of value engineering. For those who are not familiar, this is the balancing act of trying to reduce cost without a significant loss of quality. Material substitutions, altering construction details, meeting codes and guidelines in the most efficient manner possible, etc. I could fill this entire article with issues that have come up during construction, that were initially posted as “emergencies” or price increases but were inevitably resolved through Architectural intervention at minimal to no cost.

Clients often want to know how much money they can save if they do not hire an Architect during the Construction phase, and the answer is always the same…Not nearly as much as it will cost for ONE issue to arise. You may feel comfortable gambling on this perfect process of “no drama” construction, but I have never seen it, and I am confident most other Architects haven’t either.

One last comment on construction however, Architects do not simply help in a reactive sense. We are also a strong preventative measure as well. When preparing Construction Documents, we also create a Project Manual. This is a large book of technical specifications that explain what each material and item needs to be in greater detail. (Color, technical standards, etc.) This is also used in another large aspect of the Architect’s involvement - reviewing submittals. Projects often have requirements for contractors to submit information on aspects of the project that they plan to use PRIOR to them installing it.

This may sound like a huge time sink for your project. However, it’s quite the opposite. This is the best form of quality control for your project. Unless you plan on standing at the jobsite during all hours of construction and singlehandedly reviewing everything the contractor uses and builds, then you may not be getting what you pay for. Not to mention, if the wrong material is ordered, then it is very time consuming and expensive to correct this mistake.

If there is one point to get across in this article it’s this, there are a lot of reasons why you want to hire an Architect, but they can be difficult to quantify. However, it is very easy to quantify one aspect, and that is easily the most important for you and your project…MONEY.

Architects are NOT an expense you should be “questioning” when reviewing your budget. They are a value AND the best way to keep your costs down and upfront.

The question is not “Should you hire an Architect?” It is “How can you afford NOT TO?”

Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM is the Principal Architect for TOEPFER Architecture, PLLC, an Architecture firm specializing in Residential Architecture and Virtual Reality. Always eager to expose the world to the field of Architecture, he is an Assistant Professor at Alfred State College, and hosts the New Books Network – Architecture podcast. He has authored two books, “Contractors CANNOT Build Your House,” and “Six Months Now, ARCHITECT for Life.”


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