Monday, May 21, 2018


There are worse things than getting paid
in abalone.
I once completed a project for a young fellow who supported himself by diving for shellfish.  When it came time to pay my bill, he confessed that he didn’t really have any money.  Instead, he went to his freezer, pulled out two cartons bulging with abalone steak, and handed them over to me. 

Actually, being compensated with gourmet seafood is at least as good an approach as the way architects are usually paid. For generations, it’s been customary for architects to work on a commission fee, which nowadays ranges between 10-15 percent of the project budget. 

It doesn’t take a genius to spot the problems with this system. The first is that you can’t really know the budget until you’ve got plans; but you can’t get plans until you pay the commission; and you can’t figure out the commission until you know the budget. To circumvent this breathtaking bit of pretzel logic, the architect usually ends up guesstimating a budget figure, based both on his experience and a pinch of voodoo economics.   

Don't throw away Franklins needlessly—
consider paying your architect by the hour
rather than on a commission fee.
The second problem with architectural fees is that a percentage-based commission fee rewards the architect for spending the client’s money: the more expensive the project, the bigger the commission. Some say that basing an architect’s payment on the budget makes sense because costly projects are generally more complex. True enough; unfortunately, architects have a penchant for making simple projects complex as well—a trait which the commission fee only encourages.

When you meet with an architect, figure out
what you want to ask beforehand,
not while the meter is running.
Is there a better way? Often, there is. Here are a few suggestions:

•  Consider working with your architect on an hourly basis rather than on commission. Most architects charge somewhere between $100 and $150 per hour. While this may sound pricey, it’ll frequently save money over a lump-sum commission, because you won't be paying for a lot of services you may not need—choosing paint colors, for example. Hourly payment is especially wise if your project is still at an exploratory stage, because it allows you to advance the project in manageable increments, and to stop the work at any time without taking a big monetary hit.

If you don't mind doing some of your own
design homework, you can save your architect
a lot of time, and also save yourself a lot of money.
•  If you do choose to hire your architect on an hourly basis, keep your consultations with the architect brief and to the point.  Don’t engage in lengthy pie-in-the-sky dream sessions while the meter is running at $100 an hour. Also, make sure you and your spouse have reached at least a fundamental accord on your project goals. I can’t tell you how often I've sat in on initial conferences in which one spouse was raring to go while the other was dragging the brakes, or meetings in which both wanted to proceed but had wildly differing ideas of how to get there. 

What's in your freezer?
•  Take on certain portions of the design process yourself. Often, there are architectural tasks that don’t necessarily require your architect’s attention. For example, you can do the legwork involved in applying for building permits—a tedious job that most architects will gladly relinquish. You could also choose your own appliances, lighting fixtures and the like.  Relieving the architect of these responsibilities can save a substantial chunk of high-priced professional time.  

•  Lastly, don’t dismiss the idea of paying your architect with goods or services rather than money. Occasionally, such an arrangement can be mutually beneficial (but mind that you stay on the right side of the IRS). So. . .got anything interesting in your freezer?

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