Saving Money in Design Fees — A Good Idea?

I came across a very interesting survey done a few years ago. Homeowners who had done projects were interviewed as to their satisfaction levels. Those who had paid more in design fees (e.g. to an architect) were overwhelmingly more satisfied in the end than those who had paid low fees. Why this surprising result?

In a nutshell, those who had paid higher design fees had received more service. They had received more attention to the actual design, the plans were more complete and easier to build from, they had fewer problems during construction, and the architects were available to help solve problems during construction. Conversely, the study found that those who had paid the lowest fees had far more problems and were far more prone to lawsuits.

Many people have the attitude that every dollar spent on an architect is a dollar that is not available for the actual construction. In reality, a good architect or interior designer is like a good accountant or attorney, the professional can often save the homeowner much, if not most, of their fees through the avoidance of problems and surprises, more intelligent and cost-effective choices, as well as increased resale value. The overall experience is likely to be far more pleasant, as well.

I’ve seen the results when people shop for the cheapest set of plans they can find in order to get a building permit, and then try to build from them. (As one acquaintance put it, getting plans drawn and thrown over the fence.) Many important details are omitted “to save money” on the plans, such as tile and cabinet selections and layouts, and only very generic lighting plans are provided. The homeowner is then put in the position of having to make important selections and design decisions under the intense pressure of construction, with no idea of what the ultimate price will be.

The contractor must make guesses as to the design intent, and may have to work out many construction issues in the field, rather than having them worked out on paper beforehand. If the contractor guesses wrong, everybody’s unhappy. Often the contractor adds a significant amount of money to the contract to deal with all of the unknowns.

I recently lost a job to someone whose fees were approximately 1/3 my own. While the prospective client expressed regret about not hiring me since they liked me the best aside from cost, the bottom line price of this other architect was just too compelling. I was left wondering if this homeowner really understood the difference in the services they would be getting. Would that other architect provide an adequate number of design options, with furniture arrangements and 3-dimensional computer walkthroughs? Assist the homeowner in making product selections, perhaps even taking them shopping? Provide a set of plans that left nothing to the contractor’s imagination? Include the structural engineering? Assist in getting the project through the Planning and Building Departments? Assist the homeowner in getting bids or negotiating a contract with a contractor? Make regular site visits during construction and assist with issues as they came up?

I’ll probably never know how that story turns out, but the moral is clear. Different architects and designers have very different levels of service. Before you hire someone, make sure that you fully understand what level of service you will be getting. And think twice before shopping for the lowest possible fee. You may well end up paying a lot more later

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