Fees…Taking the Plunge (or not)

Recently I met with a prospective client to discuss her plans for a new home. Having researched my practice online she said she liked what she saw. The meeting went well. I submitted a proposal and followed up with a phone call during which fees were discussed, primarily in regard to her concern about making a deposit before seeing what I could do. We talked about it. So far, I haven’t heard back from her, causing me to speculate why. I realized that, although many factors influence a client when choosing their architect, one in particular was begging my attention.

Golden Gate Bridge construction

Following are my reflections regarding an area of architecture easily lost in the shadow of  all that’s inspiring about this field. Here, I want to draw attention to the more mundane matter of fees, with a special emphasis on the first payment that launches a design process. 

As a counterbalance to the more cerebral and practical nature of the subject matter, I’ve added images. These aren’t for clarification, but rather to keep your attention connected to the underlying spirit of architecture. Although my primary purpose here is my own education, I’d like to think that others may also benefit from this exercise.


Certain events in life happen only on rare occasions.

Instead, life typically ebbs and flows while going through the usual daily dips, bumps, and pauses, following the familiar rhythms danced to by all life. But, not always.

Every life at one time or another encounters a moment frozen in time when, like an exclamation point, something big defines the day: meeting that unique person for the first time who captures your soul, who causes you to miss a beat; getting married; bringing a new life into the world; etc., etc.
For some – in the context of this post, those who are about to embark on a journey of bringing to life their dreams of a custom designed home – that big moment is now.

Bernard Maybeck, Wallen Maybeck House

Long in the planning stage, the moment finally arrives for those wanting to fulfill their dreams of a new home, to hire the services of an architect. A lot of research is done and meetings arranged with those showing promise of being a good fit. At the meetings goals and priorities are discussed. Questions about fees are brought up. Following the meeting a proposal is prepared by the architect and submitted.

Here is when time stops.

In the proposal under fees, the owner finds a requirement for the initial payment to be made prior to commencement of architectural services. At this point they may feel an unexpected and overwhelming desire to put on the brakes, to back off.

In that one requirement the future is thrust into their face much like reaching the top of a steep roller coaster ride a moment before the bottom drops out. Only, unlike the roller coaster where getting on feels safe enough since the scary part comes later, here the plunge arrives early.

Millennium Force, Sandusky, Ohio                                                            photo by Joe Schwartz

Everyone knows that getting a new custom designed home can be a long arduous journey into the unknown, and maybe even an expensive one. I don’t think many realize what awaits them at the start. Merely to get aboard this long ride may, for some, require courage and a sense of dedicated purpose.

O.k., you may be wondering, roller coasters are fun, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is for those who are just not prepared for what they’re getting into. Right at the start, they’re challenged by the plunge awaiting them. Their sense of purpose shaken, they feel off-balance. As with most big leaps, making this one feels dangerous. Frustrated and perhaps angry, they find themselves unwilling to make it.

Some of that sense of danger might be merely a release of intense excitement over the prospects of making such a big move that’s filled with so much that’s not yet known. It’s a direction for which life may not have provided them much of a map.

But, there’s a bigger reason for feeling agitated.

Getting a home that’s uniquely designed for you – to who you are, your needs, wants, requirements, circumstances – is a very complex process. Besides a need for serious self-examination, it requires the help of someone skilled in that particular field of alchemy, someone who can bring your dreams to life, i.e., an architect.

Luis Lnghi, Pachacamac House, Peru

And, of course, architects must set their fees high enough to cover those services. At minimum, they’re set to a level necessary to sustain their practice, but typically and for various reasons, are not as high, relative to the work performed, as in other professions. They’re high enough, nonetheless, to inflict certain prospective clients with a strong case of sticker shock.

Apparently there’s a big gap in public knowledge of  just what it is that architects do. Presented with a fee proposal a prospective client may feel caught off-guard, bewildered. Seeing the requirement for an up front payment, they may balk.

It goes something like this.

The architect asks for an initial fee, payable as a condition for starting their work on the project.

In response the client experiences a jolt, both emotionally and to their sense of what’s reasonable. They’re thinking: “I might accept paying for professional services even if I don’t really understand exactly what it is I’m paying for, but here I’m being asked for money up front without any certain knowledge of what I’m going to get in return. After all, I don’t really know if he (she) is qualified to do what I’m being asked to pay for. What I really want is to see a design first. I want to know the design will be what I’m looking for before committing any money.

Explanations are offered, but the increasingly cautious and frustrated potential beneficiary of the architect’s talents now begins to withdraw. The doors begin to close. Attempts at shedding light fail to penetrate. At this point, frustration mounting, the project finally succumbs. Nipped in the bud, it dies prematurely.

So, why then the turmoil? Why do architects make a requirement that risks killing a project before it ever gets off the ground?

Good question in need of a good answer.

Part of the answer, as touched on above, lies in the sheer complexity of bringing a building into the world, one designed specifically for someone, their life, over a long stretch of time, and occupying a precious piece of the earth.

Studio Mumbai, Utsav House

The process of creating a new home, or any other type of architecture, requires considerably more than the wave of a magic wand. To enter into a project successfully, in a way that avoids creating a future trail of messy mistakes, the kind that become increasingly difficult to fix later on, the architect must begin with care.

Before design ideas can be explored, information pertaining to all aspects of the owner’s life, the property where it will be built, budgetary considerations, and building code requirements must be collected, analyzed and ingested. Only then can the design process have a reasonable chance at succeeding. Obviously enough, this early stage takes time. Sometimes when the information is available, it begins even before an agreement is reached so that the proposed fees are more realistic.

Architects, being those who by the nature of their work must continually straddle the line between rigorous thought and feeling, engineering and art, practicality and idealism, must also take care of the business end of running a practice.

John Lautner, Segel Residence, Malibu

John Lautner, Wolff House

John Lautner, Shaffer House

While it’s fairly common that architect’s often soft-pedal this part of their practice in order to get work and, even more, to somehow make a project succeed aesthetically, they still must acknowledge the stark reality that to keep their doors open, they need to be paid.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of architecture as a profession that, given the potential value offered, sustaining a practice is so difficult. Maybe it’s because of the reputation architects have for giving away so much of their time, that prospective clients expect it.

Maybe in their eagerness to please clients while pursuing ideals, architects allow themselves to avoid, as much as possible, the messy areas of business finance. Shifting focus back and forth from thinking as a designer to running a business is nothing if not tricky. Ignoring important business matters when fully absorbed in the design process is a choice commonly made by architects. And they pay the price.

The important point here is that architects, if they are to take themselves seriously, must be serious about getting paid. And getting paid up front, before the work of creating a built environment begins, is important to establishing the client’s seriousness of intent as well as respect for the significance of the work to be done. It’s like earnest money. And it lets the client know that the architect is to be taken seriously. The client can only benefit from that.

Luis Barragan, Barragan House

Legorreta + Legorreta, CASA LOS TECORRALES

So, the conundrum boils down to this:

The architect needs commitment and establishment of serious intent on the client’s part by means of a payment made prior to launching the design process, an intense, time consuming phase of the project.  

The client, on the other hand, afraid of paying for something they can’t yet see and may ultimately not want, needs that fear to be dispelled before writing a check. What’s the answer?

Part of the answer is that those paying for this serious effort at creating a satisfying built environment, one that does what architecture can do, i.e., the client,  recognize that such an effort requires unique skills and talent. It’s the very reason architects are hired.

Shatotto Architects, Khaka, Bangladesh

Getting your own custom-designed built environment means finding someone possessing the unique skills and talent necessary to achieving that. Holding back on paying them in the beginning sends out a clear message: it implies doubt on your part about what architects in general, yours in particular, do, and what their value is to you. In short, you’re doubting the benefit you may derive from the one you’re considering hiring to provide those benefits.

Refusing to pay up front can only undermine the success of a project. Besides establishing a certain demoralizing mistrust, it too easily gets translated into an attitude resulting in corners getting cut. This cannot pave the way to a successful project.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

Nevertheless, there’s still the unresolved problem perceived by the client of risking up front payment for something that takes time to produce, only to find that, when it’s finally presented, they may not like it. They need to feel comfortable with making this kind of leap.

One thing that needs pointing out about designing something, whether a piece of furniture or a home, is that, if it is to have any real value, it needs to begin with what is known and then purposely proceed into the uncharted territory of the unknown. Design grows from what is towards what might be. In this crucial sense it’s exploratory, a series of experiments leading toward a final approved, workable design.

Glenn Murcutt, Magney House


Surber Barber Choate & Hertlein Architects, Private Residence

anna noguera / alemanys cinco

In other words, trying to demonstrate with certainty what a project will look like in the beginning is to set up unreal expectations leading to results that disappoint. Yes, early fantasies might coincidently correspond to the final product, but it’s more likely to drag the project somewhere it shouldn’t be.

It can’t be overemphasized that to achieve the best possible project requires alignment between owner and architect regarding purpose and means. Fees need to be agreed on.

What the architect, as a good faith gesture on his/her part, may propose as a way to end the impasse over initial payment, is to reduce rather than eliminate its requirement. But, even with this, some kind of earnest money needs to change hands in order to establish the project’s legitimacy and get it successfully launched.

In any case, by this time the architect may have already invested considerable time researching and gathering information vital to the project and the accuracy of the proposed fees.

Cautionary note: haggling over price, necessary, perhaps, in bazaars, becomes a big red flag to architects and probably most other professionals. Whereas being conscientious regarding budgets is, or should be, at the top of the architect’s list of priorities in the design of a project, being haggled about fees is unnecessary dead weight and contributes nothing to its success.

The ideal approach to entering into an agreement with an architect, done before finding yourself at the precipice, is to learn all you can about him or her and their work. If you, for the most part, like what you see, you then have the best assurance available of what it is you’re paying for. Your chances of being pleased with the final results are greatly improved. You can then enjoy the ride.

Tadao Ando, Tom Ford Ranch

Ken Kellogg, House in Joshua Tree

Anekit Bhagwat,The Drum House

Estudio Cinco, T3ARC

Laura Warburton

michele angelini

4 thoughts on “Fees…Taking the Plunge (or not)

  1. Nicely put, and nicely illustrated. I’ve spent most of my career as an employee architect, working on public projects, and as the CA guy…about as far removed from the initiation of a private residence project as I can imagine! Best wishes for that next phone call.

  2. Pingback: Taking Off…part 1 of 2 | WARREN LAWSON

  3. Pingback: Taking Off…part 2 of 2 | WARREN LAWSON

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