5 Ways to Get Ripped Off by an Architect

It would be extremely rare for an architect to knowingly cheat a client. After all, architects have an almost martyr-like commitment to high ethical standards. Not only would most architects never dream of cheating their clients, they often lose money on projects for simple fear of seeming greedy by asking for additional services they actually deserve. Nevertheless, the way in which you engage an architect can inadvertently cost you more than it needs to. When hiring an architect, here are some costly pitfalls to avoid:

1. Pay an hourly fee for the construction phase. It's far too common to see owners paying an architect a fixed fee for the design phase and then switching to an hourly fee for the construction phase. Some architects will argue that the construction phase is unpredictable, and that the quality of the contractor will greatly affect the amount of time demanded of the architect. That has truth to it.

The problem is that a large part of the architect's efforts during the construction phase are simply fixing their own errors, or finishing the design because they never fully worked it out. These activities are things you already paid for during the design phase.

The even bigger issue, beyond paying the architect to fix his own errors, is that the construction costs get driven up as a result of these errors or omissions in the architect's drawings. For instance, if a contractor begins framing a wall one way and then has to rip it out and frame it again a different way because the architect realizes he's made an error, you will owe that contractor extra money. And as unfair as it may seem, you are not legally entitled to recover that extra money from the architect.

This is due to legal precedence related to the Standard of Care, which says that professionals rendering professional services are allowed to make mistakes as long as those mistakes are something another architect in a similar situation is likely to make as well. Architects have to fix their own errors at no cost to you, but they aren't responsible for the construction fall-out that may result.

Solution: One of your biggest protections against getting ripped off in this way is to pay the architect a fixed fee (also called a lump sum) that is front-loaded so the design phase is large, and the construction phase payment is small. This encourages the architect to get all the coordination and design work done before you break ground.

2. Rush into construction. There is a saying that goes, "It's cheaper to fix problems on paper than in the field." Don't fall into the trap of thinking that the sooner you start construction, the sooner your project will finish. The reality is that spending more time up front to make sure the design is thoroughly thought out and the documents are thoroughly coordinated will always save you time and money overall.

3. Hire a long-distance architect. Unless you're commissioning a sports stadium or a new hospital, there is almost no chance you can't find an architect near you with the expertise and talent to meet your needs. Hiring an architect who is far away increases your cost in four ways:

First, you'll have to hire someone local to document existing conditions. Your architect can't get started without a thorough drawing of what's there now. More cooks in the kitchen increases your costs because everyone has administrative costs, there will be overlap in work, miscommunication, etc.
Second, even with photos and good as-built drawings and even one in-person visit, the architect will inevitably miss some subtlety about the building site that causes a problem. An architect needs to visit a building site several times to correctly understand its context, lay eyes on some strange existing condition, and correctly assess opportunities. Therefore, you'll either increase your costs by paying a lot in travel fees to bring the architect to the site, or you'll pay in another way by having a less informed design and a higher number of surprises during construction.
Third, building codes and planning codes vary from city to city. Each state adopts a building code standard, and then each city adds or changes parts of the building code. For instance, even though the building code allows small commercial buildings to have a uni-sex toilet, San Francisco requires a minimum of two toilets (one for men and one for women). Hire an architect who is not familiar with your area and you increase the likelihood of an honest mistake.
Fourth, architects are licensed state-by-state. So if you hire an architect who doesn't have a license in your state, you then have to pay for another architect or engineer to review the drawings and affix his or her stamp. Then later it becomes complicated if there is a legal claim that arises.

4. Allow finger-pointing. There are a lot of architects out there who will blame the contractor, and a lot of contractors who will blame the architect. The truth is always a little of both, and the result is that you pay either way.

Solution: If you aren't going to do Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) , at least have a kickoff meeting with both your general contractor and your architect at the table. Introduce them to each other, talk about your goals and constraints, and make it clear that you expect them to work together. Talk about ground rules. For instance, one great ground rule to avoid finger-pointing is this: "No Request for Interpretation (RFI) is allowed to be filed until after the architect and contractor have spoken on the phone." That's because many things that seem like problems at first are just plain misunderstandings. When talking to your architect, stress that you expect his drawings to be crystal clear for the contractor, and that part of his duties are to hold a pre-construction review with the contractor where they discuss anything that seems unclear before construction begins.

5. Allow re-design in the name of "value-engineering." Value-engineering, in its academic definition, means engineering a design to have maximum value (where value is the ratio of benefits to costs). In its more common usage, people say value-engineering to mean re-designing to reduce scope because the project is over budget. When construction costs exceed the budget, it's usually because the method by which the architect is communicating with cost estimators is backwards. Architects typically design something and then check to see how much it will cost. This leads to surprises. The worst is when you get your heart set on all the beautiful features you've picked out together, only to find out you're way over your budget and you have to let things go that you've been day dreaming about. If you you don't have a specific budget you want to stick to, then it's quite alright to design your dream project and then find out how much it costs later. If you're this kind of client, please hire me because I've always wanted to know what that's like.

Solution: Require your architect to practice something called "Target Value Design." This is when you first define your target, or budget. Then you and your architect design to that target, defining the scope and complexity to match what you can actually afford. This requires close and constant communication between the architect and the cost estimators. Ideally, your cost estimator will be the contractor who will actually build the project.

Oscia Wilson, AIA, is founder and CEO of Boiled Architecture. Boiled Architecture is a San Francisco-based architecture firm that focuses on commercial and healthcare projects. They specialize in collaborative projects, using Lean and BIM tools. Visit Boiled Architecture's website to learn more: http://www.boiledarchitecture.com/

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