What Then is the Point of Hiring an Architect?

“What an architect is, seems to be up for debate these days…. Most buildings in this country are not designed by architects, and it is becoming easier and easier for laypeople to buy computer  programs or to hire-in expertise that allows them to design buildings. More and more of what goes into buildings is also becoming specialized and bolstered by technology, so that what defines a building is as much systems, codes, interior decoration. lighting and acoustical design, and cost estimating, as it is whatever we might still call architecture.” from “Who Cares Who’s a Licensed Architect?” by Aaron Betsky for Architect Magazine, Oct. 22, 2012

For millennia, buildings, especially dwellings, have been erected without the involvement of what today is referred to as an architect. They were built by those with enough skills to enclose a space that for the most part would remain upright, at least for a while. Failure, after appeasing the gods, was followed by trying once again, perhaps learning something from the experience. Occasionally something was learned about structural integrity.

As populations grew and civilizations advanced, structural failure and destruction by fire became a growing cause for concern. But advancing civilizations also meant an advance in building technologies along with the efforts by underwriters, governments, and local civic groups to harness the growing risk of greater casualties.

As part of that effort, master builders began grouping together in professional societies. They were following the precedent of artisan guilds in an earlier era. Now their stated purpose was advancement of “the common good” – to ensure building safety and protect an unwitting public from charlatans.

As their numbers grew, so too did their political clout, an effort that eventually paid off with the passage of licensing laws.

Designed to raise the bar of technical competence, licensing also carried with it the added short-term bonus to the licensee of limited competition. Assuring professional competency, a worthy goal in itself, also carried with it, as do all regulations, the hidden price of limited choices and consequently an increase in cost. With added cost comes, inevitably, a search for alternatives.

The pressure exerted on government to promote public safety had other consequences besides licensing, notably the creation of building codes and zoning laws. In order to build, a licensed architect was needed to not only design and prepare construction drawings, but also to navigate the ever growing complexity of code enforcement agencies for approval. To build required a building permit.

Complying with an increasingly complex thicket of code requirements eventually required the services of a trained professional. For most building types, construction drawings submitted to a building department were then required to be stamped with the professional seal of a licensed architect or engineer.

Over the years, satisfying code restrictions has become an increasingly central part of an architect’s skill set. And, as one might expect, one consequence is that the buildings they design have been shaped to an ever greater extent by those codes.

Also as a consequence, the architect’s public image began to shift from that of artist-builder to one as a building technician and permit facilitator; (and, if any money was left in the budget, someone who could then also give the building some “pizzazz”.)

Giving boost to the image-shift that architects, as well as architecture, has undergone is the emergence and rapid development of digital technology, notably in the areas of design and 3D drawings.

A genuine boon to the delivery of projects, this technology has also resulted in an increasing number of imaginary architects. Apps are now available to anyone with a digital device that enable them to produce computer models of built environments and vicariously experience themselves as designers, no further experience needed.

More and more, as this technology grows, some will come to think that they can do what “architects” do; they can now design buildings and their interiors. Of course they will acknowledge that they don’t possess the technical expertise to convert their digital fantasies into real buildings. But then, that’s what contractors and architects are for.

And since contractors, more and more, are acquiring many of the skills once the exclusive domain of architects, why not, then, just bypass the architect for everything except for stamping the drawings.

By the way, this is not just me indulging in the dark side. Yes, it’s a foreshortened view but one that contains a kernel of truth. That architects have become a limited participant in shaping our built environment is easily checked out by a quick look at real estate ads or driving around town.

What then is the point of hiring an architect?  Construction costs are high enough without plugging in fees for architectural services, especially when the value of those services are in doubt.

Whatever we call architecture… is more than what licensed architects do. It is something that transforms buildings into frames for our daily lives, frameworks for relationships, catalysts for new ways of living, anchors in a world of change, and many other things that I think are difficult to define and, more importantly, even less likely to show up in the process by which architects in this country and the U.K. are licensed…” ibid.

The art in architecture is a fragile thing. Over the years its status has been slowly displaced by the ever-growing complications of getting something built. This has led to increased costs, leaving less and less room for anything but satisfying the practical necessity of shelter. When the the art in architecture devolves into surface application, architecture loses its soul. Missing there is the seamless merging of all the parts that make architecture something more than just a practical solution.  Missing is another opportunity to discover the joys unique to architecture at its best, architecture that reaches the best in us.

Just how much more than what licensing alone accomplishes is evident when standing in the presence of architecture designed by someone possessing certain talents and abilities beyond the technical that awaken in us something that’s too often asleep. The heightened experience of being alive that architecture has the potential to offer requires something deeper than what technical proficiency and skills at acquiring building permits alone can achieve.

And, by the way, it also requires someone, a client, who really wants it; someone who is willing to acknowledge and accept that, for certain things, there’s just no shortcut to getting them.

Below are samples of  how some have given shape to what they saw when looking deeper.

Le Grotte della Civita, Matera, 2009

Utzon in Mallorca

Small House In Czech Republic Recycled From Ruins of Barn

House 6 in San Mateo County,California by Fu-Tung Cheng. 2009

James Eads How House, Silverlake, Los Angeles. Rudolph Schindler. 1925

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

John Lautner, Stevens House, Malibu

John Lautner, Segel house, Malibu

Shirish Beri and Associates, Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species

Avenue of Poplars at Sunset – Vincent van Gogh

Diego Rivera, House over Bridge, 1909

Taking Off…part 1 of 2

As I’ve suggested in previous posts, architecture exists as a subject of enduring interest to many people.

But it’s mostly as a wistful flight of fantasy sadly beyond the reach of most, rarely connected to ones personal life in the sense of its potential as an enhancement. Instead it remains a kind of light, spectator form of entertainment, forever distant from ones immediate reality.

Insofar as architecture plays such a central part in my life as an architect, which means for me, being dependent on having clients, not to mention being uniquely affected by what gets built out there, I’ve recently found myself fidgeting with this issue, driven by a nagging desire to improve on it, or, at minimum, to better understand it.

[By fidgeting I mean, in addition to trying to unravel just what sustains this status quo, I’m also restlessly searching (or am I just groping along down some dimly lit passage?) for shafts of light that might better illuminate the potential joys of architecture to a larger audience as a real possibility. That, and maybe to encourage, or even turn someone on enough to take the leap, to build a place – their refuge in the world – that captures the best within them, which for me is a lot of what architecture is about.]

So, what more can I add that I haven’t already said in previous posts?

There’s always the option of hopelessly subscribing to the point of view that says we’re all destined to be ensnared in a helpless world of haves and have nots. Well, as I’ve said in a previous post (see “Dystopia: an Option?“), since I reject a dystopian view of human potential – a state of being where everything is at the mercy of destiny, where no one is fundamentally free to choose, I prefer to cast my net a bit farther. But where?


O.k., if I’m going to make any progress here, I need to start with an assumption: Some of us, the relative few that by what ever means it takes, though usually by hard work and/or smart financial management, at least in the freer parts of the world, have the necessary resources to launch a quest for architecture.

What about these potential beneficiaries of the rewards of architecture, the ones who see where they want to go, but may need some guidance as well as encouragement in getting started?  As with any achievement, there’s a continuum from person to person in their readiness to take the necessary first step.

Consequently, the quest for ones own architecture occasionally aborts at takeoff, even though financial resources may be available. From my vantage point it appears that not many people who are otherwise ready, are willing to take those first steps toward acquiring their own architecture.

Given that there’s an endless stream of architectural images out there in print, film, and digital form, along with the sheer quantity of actual built work that can be experienced, certainly enough to feed inspiration, I’m fairly certain that the gap between personal response to all that stimulating input on the one hand, and actually initiating a process of acquiring ones own architecture on the other, is for some, too big to attempt the leap.

What I’m trying to say is that I think part of the process of initiating a course of action has to do with being, not just sufficiently motivated, but of equal importance, sufficiently confident of ones prospects for success, of being capable of reaching your destination, especially if it’s a long, complex  journey undertaken for the first time.

Couple that with what appears to be a kind of ennui: the low status architecture holds for many people in their hierarchy of must-have things in life and thus its absence, makes it easier to shrug off that absence. Since life doesn’t depend on it and since it’s easier to leave things as they are, the usual path is to file it away as something that can be done without. There’s just no sense of urgency driving the effort required to obtain it. The dull void left behind in the wake of never trying is easier to accept.

Nevertheless, there is more that can be done:

  • On the one hand, there’s creating a strong desire for ones own personal architecture, desire powerful enough to sustain the considerable effort needed to follow through with getting it.
  • On the other, there’s having a plan for acquiring it.

In my last post I touched on one essential part of such a plan: the subject of investing in architecture. Quite a bit more could be discussed regarding architecture as a financial undertaking, but far more suitably by those with more expertise than myself on the subject.

So, let’s assume for the purpose of making progress that the financing is, in fact, under control. What else, then, is needed? In part two of this post, I’ll offer some tips that may contribute to a successful journey.

Related earlier posts:

Investing in Architecture   Fees…Taking the Plunge (or not)   Considerations   Wanting More   Designing Your Ideal Home…Part 1   Part 2   Raise the Bar   Shelter: A Choice   Risk Taking   Missing…But Not Lost   Space

Investing in Architecture

Architecture, the art of shelter, is burdened by an image of being beyond the reach of most people, financially as well as aesthetically.

As a kind of counterbalance to this bad but mostly accurate wrap, architecture also provides us with the subject matter of many books, pilgrimages, weekend tours, film, travel clips, not to mention Pinterest boards. Good architecture, mostly done by others, entertains, inspires, and generally raises our awareness of what’s possible in life with regard to our surroundings.

ARX Portugal

Nevertheless, its cost restricts most of us to the role of spectator. Most, but fortunately not all of us.

When certain favorable events in a person’s life converge, the prospects of living in a home environment uniquely designed for them, for who they are, start to come alive.

For some that prospect remains a distant star, an unattainable dream. And yet, a few will take pursuit. For even fewer, their dream will be inhabited  by images of home as a work of art, a quest even more challenging. Those who take up the challenge must do it with a determination to capture the dream and make it real.

Just as with other art forms the pursuit of building as art has to do with being able to experience home – or any other shelter – as an aesthetic experience, one that over time enlivens the senses and reaches deep within the psyche. As such, it becomes a lens for bringing life into focus, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually.

On the face of it, it would seem having a home environment that is also an art form might be a big attraction to many, one worth pursuing.

From what I’ve observed, however, I don’t think it is. As I’ve commented on in previous posts, many factors intervene to block, detract, or otherwise prevent people from wanting and getting more in the realm of their built environment. As prominent as buildings are in our lives, few of us will acquire one that will provide the experience uniquely offered by art.

One plausible explanation for this may be that the thought of living in an environment that’s also art is just too much for most people. It implies too many expectations and demands for it ever to be comfortably lived in. And, of course, if the shoe doesn’t fit there’s no reason to try wearing it. But there are, nevertheless, those for whom it does fit.

For those comfortable with the idea of living in an environment that aesthetically enriches, the main obstacle usually comes down to cost.

Building, whether a small room, a high rise, or the endless variety in between, carries a price tag, the contemplation of which can intimidate. I want to offer some thoughts I’ve had regarding this issue with an emphasis on architecture as an investment.

To reiterate, costs are the largest impediment, imagined or real, to achieving more from our built environments. Fear of losing money, on the one hand, getting buried in debt on the other, quickly evaporate fantasies one may entertain of pursuing a building that’s custom designed to ones unique lifestyle and that might also be a work of art.

Every building regardless of scale or scope begins with a consideration of what it will cost. And on average that is more than most of us have at our disposal to reasonably finance. From the very beginning the dream of building is pitted against this reality.

While there’s no way I can think of within reason to dodge this important issue, it is possible to give it some perspective and therefore a possible compass when trying for a soft landing of that dream. For my purposes here I want, as I said, to look at building as an investment.

First, a very brief primer in economics. For those of you with a background in that field, or who respond to it with extreme boredom, my apologies: this may be an exercise in testing your patience. Humor me if you can.

Everything has a certain value, both intrinsic and perceived, including the cost of producing it. That, plus taking into account its availability versus how much in demand it might be.

Yes, trying to set the price on something is far more complicated than that. But breaking it down in a way that satisfies current economic theory would be inappropriate here and would only confuse matters. My preference, instead, is to keep things as simple as possible.

Building, like a simple loaf of bread or a meal at a 5-star restaurant, is comprised of its materials and a series of steps or operations required to make it. These are the basis for determining its cost. That and its status in the calculus of supply and demand.

Some things are valued much more highly than others and in different ways relative to its social context. In the western world, at least, a diamond, of course, usually commands a far higher price than a teardrop of glass; a Ferrari more than a Ford; a home designed with special emphasis on realizing its potential to aesthetically enrich, more than a home mass-produced for accommodating  strictly practical needs. Another factor related to scarcity that may also drive up demand for something and make it seductively irresistible, is its publicly perceived status as a luxury item.

Here’s what I think it comes down to: buildings like everything else, to an extent that will vary from person to person, represent a choice regarding a calculated exchange of value – an investment.

In short, I have just so much money at my disposal. As a medium of exchange – of trade, my money is a lubricant so to speak; it facilitates an exchange of value – the value to me of what it has taken to acquire that money, in exchange for something owned or provided by someone else. When I buy something I want to know that it is equal to or greater in value than the money (or other medium) with which I’m making the purchase. I want to be assured that I’m making a good investment with my limited resources. Again, oversimplified, perhaps, but appropriate to my point.

Bear with me while I recap and build a little more context from which to view this issue.

Building, in simple terms, is a commodity that provides us with shelter. It’s valued by everyone and to an extent that varies as much as do our personal circumstances.

It’s everywhere around us and in most cases intimately affects us while we’re in it. Our perception and moods are continually under its influence. In short, it’s a big deal. But often it’s taken for granted. And seldom is it changed. Yet it’s always there.

For the most part, as I suggested before, the possibilities of altering our built surroundings, of building anything, much less actually living in ones dream-environment, get derailed by the spectrum of what it might cost.

So, as a consequence, few will ever make the next move. But, there are some that do. For them cost, rather than being a deterrent, becomes another of life’s essential calculations. In considering its feasibility they will carefully weigh a project’s pros and cons on its merits as an investment; they make a serious effort to understand its real value to them.

Building, as an investment can then, very broadly speaking, be approached in two ways (there are, no doubt, other ways as well).

  1. Building, as a long range investment that pays back in terms of the positive value derived from it. In other words,  as an investment, the building is regarded as an asset whose return extends over time. The payback can be in terms of simply owning it, as well as in ones experience of living there, of enjoying the day to day pleasures that only this kind of environment can offer. Or, as another possibility, the payback can be in the way of future cash flow. Whereas its cost will be impacted by most of the same factors affecting the viability of building pursued strictly as a business (see below), it will pay back the investment largely through its unique aesthetic as well as utilitarian rewards that extend over time.
  2. Building, as a one time commodity to be quickly sold at a profit. Here, all the factors affecting cost – demographics, land cost, cost of borrowing, cost of regulatory and other code agency approvals, fees, construction labor and material costs, design complexity, project delivery time, ones ability to survive a protracted selling period, etc., come strongly into play. More than any other single factor, the prospects for a profit will be at the mercy of the project delivery time. All building projects are affected to some extent by these factors, but none to the extent as when pursuing building as a business. Succeeding with this option is difficult and is more commonly taken up by either someone with deep pockets and fortitude to spare, or by developers who have mastered the art of building as a business.

On a residential scale, because of the severe limitations of pursuing building as a business opportunity, few venture into this area. And far fewer, still, produce built environments for quick profit that come close to providing the experiential benefits of work that’s custom-designed by talented architects, although there are exceptions – David Hovey’s Optima in Arizona comes to mind.

But as can be expected, producing built environments – housing in particular – as a profit making enterprise, makes it affordable to a much larger number of people. By doing so, it also becomes the first step up the ladder toward eventually investing in ones bigger dreams.

So then, what can be taken away from of the above?

Building, and particularly those built environments that go the farthest in providing us with the greatest return, experientially as well as practically, require of us a serious effort to identify our priorities. We need to treat our dreams with respect, while also taking responsibility for being honest with ourselves regarding the extent of our reach. Is it within grasp?

Prior to chasing the dream we need to decide whether the investment is for a return that’s more immediate, or one that will be paid back in the long run. If it’s long term, and it will be for most of you who venture into this arena, are you financially capable of managing it? And, of course, how much is the prospect of owning and living in this special place worth to you?

If you choose the custom-design route, it’s essential that you have a clear idea of your risk-tolerance, i.e., how much you are willing to take on. An important piece of advice here is to limit the scope of your building wish-list accordingly.

Keep in mind that a living environment custom-designed for you, i.e., shelter that nurtures experientially, as well as protects, follows a different path in its delivery than does a mass market production home. And in most cases this will be reflected in what it costs.

If where you invest your resources is important, if you are looking at buildings as a viable place for that investment, if you are financially able, and if you are looking for the best possible return in terms of your day-to-day experience over an extended period of time, then by far your best option is to pursue an environment that’s custom designed to your unique requirements.

Architecture is the art of building that brings with it all its potential to add significant value to your personal life. But, from the beginning, its success as a viable project depends to a large extent on accurately calculating what is wanted from it versus its potential benefits. It needs to be seen as an investment.


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