Risky Business: Hiring an Architect

Unless you know the pitfalls, choosing an architect can be a risky business.

Three things you should know about this article:

  1. It’s an opinion piece, but that opinion is based on forty years of construction and real estate experience.
  2. It discusses issues and factors that are well-known within the construction industry but seldom, if ever, openly discussed.
  3. It’s not a condemnation of the architectural profession.

Architects are necessary

While clients often see architects as a necessary evil, I don’t. The reality is that architects are necessary. You cannot build anything without proper documentation, and that’s exactly what architects provide. They very carefully draw the pictures and write the specifications that make everything work – everything from the properly flushing toilet to the leak-proof roof. We also need the architect’s talent and creativity.

A good architect can save his weight in gold on many projects. But as in any profession, there are the good, the bad and the ugly, or architects who are talented, honest and reliable and their opposites.

Avoiding those opposites that prompted this article

I’m convinced that most clients, particularly schools and churches, don’t know what they need to know about architects and about the various contractual programs that may be available to them.

To begin with, prospective clients often are not aware of how architects determine and earn their fees. Usually, architects make a percentage of the total cost of a project – anywhere from six to ten percent. In such arrangements, they earn the most on the costliest buildings; Obviously, they do not financially benefit by saving their clients money. It’s also a fact that in construction a slight change – a slip of the pen – can significantly increase costs.

And the temptations don’t end there. Sometimes construction companies or suppliers offer architects a kickback for using them or their products. The reverse is also true: Some architects actively seek kickbacks.

In today’s world, if the project is a structure – big or small – for public use, building codes in most U.S. areas require an architect. Such construction must carry an architectural stamp. Through it, the architect assumes responsibility for the structure’s safety and proper functioning.

Just how is the architect hired?

Not by bid! Architects are often the only professionals involved in construction projects who are not required to bid the jobs. To complicate matters, in many states you are prohibited by law from asking architects about their fees until after you have selected them.


Let’s say you’re a school looking for an architect to design a new gymnasium. Typically and traditionally what you, as the client, get into is a Design-Bid-Build contract. In the construction industry, there are Project Delivery Methods – contractual programs the client enters into in order to get something built. Design-Bid-Build is one such Project Delivery Method.

Here’s what occurs: Through local newspapers and letters to architectural firms, you communicate your need. Architects respond by showing up with their portfolios. Then, what the construction community calls a “Beauty Contest” begins. Architects show drawings and/or visual presentations of their work.

You, the client, are expected to select your designer based almost solely on past performance. In essence, you are expected to view the drawings, find the one that looks the closest to what you want, and make your decision.

Of course, some variables often enter into this process. The architect may be a local living in your town, or a professional who has done business with the school district for years, or a friend of an administrator or school board member. But regardless of the variables, typically the Beauty Contest – like a kind of dance – goes on until the selection is made. With that over, fee negotiations begin.

Up to that point, you financially owe the architect nothing. So if you cannot come to a fee agreement, you can kill the process and start over. But keep in mind that this is a time-consuming procedure. Starting over will be time-costly. Consequently, it’s best to generously allot time at the start of your search.

Once you have chosen your designer and agreed on the fee, the architectural firm presents contracts it wrote that favor it for your signature. The designing process then begins, followed by the actual construction, which will probably take at least nine months. During that time, you will be dealing with the one architect assigned to your project. Your building becomes that designer’s baby – regardless of the architectural firm’s size.

Obviously, it’s essential that you and your architect agree on what you want, what it will do and what it will cost.

Architects carry responsibility for more than the design, blueprints and specifications. They review bids and hire other professionals, such as general construction, heating/air conditioning, structural engineering, electrical layout, etc. Large architectural firms may have some of those disciplines in-house, but smaller ones do not. These subcontracted pros are paid by the architectural firm out of the percentage fee it earns.

Once the selection of subcontractors is completed but before the actual construction begins, architects receive the bulk of their fees. From then on, they play a more minor role by inspecting the project and communicating with the client once every two or three weeks.

Typically, that is Design-Bid-Build. It’s called that because the design process comes first. That makes the architect an important and powerful person, who selects the bidders, the second part of the Design-Bid-Build process. Only after design and bid are completed does build commence.

Design-Bid-Build – the old standby when it comes to Project Delivery Methods – has an inherent fault. It immediately sets-up an adversarial relationship between the architect and the general contractor.

Here’s a common scenario: The architect forgets to write down a specific, that could be as simple as a bathroom doorknob. The contractor claims this as an extra that the architect or the client, but not the contractor, is financially responsible for. Moreover, it necessitates writing up and following through on a Change Order. Suddenly, the client has an architect and a contractor who are mad at each other and the forgotten doorknob – ordinarily an inexpensive item – costing many times more than it should. General contractors usually want to build as inexpensively as they can. When they find anything left out, they argue about it, and the client gets caught in the middle.

It’s usually not possible for the client to research the relationship between a designer and a builder in advance. In Design-Bid-Build, the architect must choose the contractor with the lowest bid, so neither architect nor client really have a choice.

Mitigating Design-Bid-Build

In many areas, schools have no alternative. By law, they must go with Design-Bid-Build. Fortunately there are actions the school can take to mitigate this process and reduce some of the risk. For the most part, these actions are common sense stuff, but they do take time:

  • Know your goals. Before you start the architect-search, have a clear picture of the facility you want: its size, its uses and your priorities. Those priorities should include budget limits, as well as specific characteristics you want such as energy-efficiency, disaster resistance, low maintenance, etc. In short, your list should include anything and everything important to you.
  • Check the architect’s references. Visit structures the firm has completed, preferably ones that have been in use for at least a year and that have a function similar to what you want. Talk with people who maintain and supervise the building. Ask about performance, energy use, maintenance. Ask also about the architectural design: Did the architect design to the level you wanted, within your budget guidelines? Was the architect willing to listen to you? How were disagreements handled?
  • Consider buying a Feasibility Study. A Feasibility Study is an architectural tool that clarifies the shape and direction of a project and realistically estimates its cost. Generally completed by an architect for a fee, a Feasibility Study usually includes a floor plan, a detailed building section that lets you see the interior, a site study, cost estimates, and a pencil sketch of the project’s exterior.

Feasibility Studies are a fairly recent development, and some architects don’t like doing them because they don’t bring in the big bucks. But the architect should be willing to do that much work for a reasonable fee – especially for a client, such as a school, that needs design approval from a group or a community. Such a client might order a Feasibility Study from two or three architects so a comparison could be made. For its projects, the federal government often does just that.


Design-Build is a Project Delivery Method whose popularity is rapidly growing, especially with the federal government. The feds like Design-Build because it attracts more professionals, talent and ideas and usually gets them a better building for less money. Design-Build uses a team, consisting of a designer and a builder, who, ideally, focus on common goals and take advantage of each other’s expertise.

Construction Management

Construction Management is another fairly recent Project Delivery Method. It includes a Construction Manager – an individual, hired by the client for a set fee, who oversees and manages each phase of the construction so that the client’s goals, expectations and budget limits are met.

Tradition Versus Technology

Tradition is nice and it has its place, but it’s technology that makes buildings safer and more economical than they ever were. Architects must keep up with construction practices and technologies. Designers who do not study and evaluate new technology cannot be honest with their clients. This is the way it has always been done is not a good reason to perpetuate old methods and ideas.

Practicing architects must constantly evaluate what they have learned. They must remember that teachers at architectural schools often do not know about innovations. Many operate on knowledge they learned when they were in school.

In 1986, I talked with the head of a moderate-size architectural firm about using CAD systems for drawing blue prints. This professional made it very clear that he didn’t think CAD drafting would ever “amount to a hill of beans.”

Unfortunately, he was not alone. The construction world had to literally force many architects to learn CAD drafting or to hire people to do it for them. The value of CAD drafted plans was simply too significant to ignore. CADs are more accurate, more inclusive and allow better communication between the client, the builder and the architect.

Many new materials and new construction techniques are like CAD – too important to ignore. In short, I believe every client deserves an architect who knows the new technologies and uses them.

Note: We first presented this article in January 2004 and updated in January 2012.