19 Apr 2011

How Much Do You Charge per SF? — Loaded Question?

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What’s wrong with architects? They always answer questions with questions especially the most important question “how much do you charge?” Has this ever happened to you? Your architect interview is plodding along nicely. You ask questions about his work, and he asks a few questions about your family and project. About the time you learn a little about each other and develop some comfort you spring an innocuous question “How much do you charge?” and your architect partially side-steps your direct question and asks a series of probing questions.

You’re astonished at his candor and wonder why he’s dodging the blunt question “how much?” I’m guilty of the same affliction, but I’m not being aloof, coy or uncooperative when I answer that question with questions and I caution you to be wary of any architect who answers the question “how much” without asking a few himself.

It’s not that I don’t want to answer the question, but I can’t answer “how much?” until I know more about you and the project. Architects call this the scale and scope which describes “how big your project is” and “how much you want from me”.

When you ask “how much for a set of plans” or “how much do you charge per SF”, you may not realize all projects are not the same and each client request requires specific time and expertise. Since I get paid for time and expertise, I base the fee on how big your project is and how much you want from me.

To find out how big your project is, I ask:

  • What size is the project?
  • What building type is it?
  • Is it single or multi-story?
  • What spaces do you want?
  • What built-ins do you want?
  • What exterior and interior materials and finishes do you want?
  • Does it include outdoor spaces, covered spaces or outdoor entertainment?
  • What is the land like? Is it steep, flat, rocky, flood prone?

To find out how much you want from me, I ask:

  • Do you want design documents?
  • Do you want an analysis to decide if your project is a good idea?
  • Do you want a construction estimate?
  • Do you want the slab and structure engineered?
  • Do you want me to work with your design team?
  • Do you want me to interview, select or suggest contractors?
  • Do you want me to evaluate your bids to make sure you receive equivalent bids?
  • Do you want me to observe construction to make sure you get what you paid for?
  • Do you want me to coordinate with review authorities (HOA, city, state)?

When you answer these questions, I learn what service you need and I can propose the time and expertise required to design and manage your project. I know what you’re thinking. If I design for a living, why is that question so difficult to answer?  It’s not difficult to answer, but I need more information. In fact, asking me “how much do you charge” is like asking:

  • How much for a loaf of bread?
  • How much for a car?
  • How much for a pair of shoes?
  • How much for college tuition?
  • How much for a restaurant meal?
  • How much to mow my lawn?
  • How much to repair my car?

Providers need to know specifics to answer your question or they must guess. Since there are many options, they are likely to guess wrong. I want to answer right so I ask specific questions to provide what you want rather than my best guess.

So there’s nothing inherently wrong with architects. They need to know the same thing everyone else does before they answer the question “how much do you charge”. To estimate your design fee, we need to know what you want and how much of it.

About the Author

Your Architect is Eric Faulkner -- an architect licensed in Texas & Oklahoma with 32 years experience in design, construction observation and life.