Designer Fees and How To Control Your Costs

The fee structures of the architectural design world can be a bit confusing to clients, but there really is a method to the madness. Design and remodeling is an affair consisting of many layers, so there is a level of engagement to suit just about everyone! It all comes down to what you want out of it. The paragraphs below will assist you in determining your chosen architect/designer’s level of involvement, and help you stay in control of the costs for your project.

Know how much you want to spend! The first thing you want to do when considering a project, is figure out what your budget is. Once you have determined how much you are willing to spend, you are in an excellent position to determine how much of what you want is actually possible. Generally, items like excavation, framing, roofing, etc., have fairly predictable price tags. It costs what it costs. When you get into fixtures, appliances, finishes, however, they sky’s the limit! This is one area where a creative designer can really make a difference. Depending on your situation, your designer can advise you on where to splurge, and on what can be substituted with more affordable options while still achieving the results you want. For most everyone, reality sets different boundaries than imagination, and it is the job of your designer to help you maximize the bang for your buck! But, I digress…

The level of designer involvement you choose, will directly impact how much detail will be included on your drawings. The bare bones version only includes enough information to get your building permit. It offers no detail beyond that, and as you just read, this is exactly this kind of detail that can send your costs skyward, and blow your budget. In order to control your costs, you need to account for this. You do this by setting limits – so called “budget allowances” on how much you can spend on each item not included in the drawings, for example “hardware –  not to exceed $600”. This is very important! Also, keep in mind that as you will do your own purchasing,  you will pay full retail price.

If you opt for the highest level of involvement, with a fully detailed, comprehensive design, the drawings and supplemental documents will include all the information needed to complete the project. This includes lists and schedules, spelling out every detail from plumbing fixtures to trim profiles to tiling patterns and color choices. In this case, the amounts for every little thing will be documented in the “Schedule of Costs” which will be signed off on by the client. In this case, the designer orchestrates the purchasing, so the client will enjoy a discount off the retail price.

Below are the various levels that are generally offered. There is an option for everyone!

Design Consultation This is the design quickie! Here, the designer is usually compensated on an hourly basis, and the time can be used for a variety of things; color consultations, space planning consultations, or simply, to test your DYI ideas on a professional. If you are planning to design your space yourself, it is money well spent to run your ideas by a pro, as, in addition to having a grasp on building codes and technical matters, they are able to foresee snags you may have missed, and can offer alternative ideas that may not have occurred to you.

Pros: There are no strings attached to this creative mini-session!. You meet, get some answers and/or input, pay, and you’re done! In terms of color and spatial consultations, you will be left with a few viable ideas and perhaps a quick sketch, or diagram, to pursue at your discretion.

Cons: There are no actual drawings for you to consult at the end of this kind of session, so take good notes.

Design Documentation Some clients know precisely what they want, and provide you with the basic design solution themselves. All they want from the designer is an assurance that their design will meet codes and drawings that will secure them a building permit. This service is referred to as “Design Documentation”. The designer/architect’s role here is to contribute their knowledge of local building codes and technical know-how when assembling the client’s instructions into a set of construction documents. From this set of drawings, the city will issue a building permit. This is the most basic level of service, and concerns itself with nothing but securing that permit. All further details, material choices, purchasing management etc., are at the discretion of the client with no input from the designer. Don’t forget to include those budget allowances!

Pros: This is as affordable as it gets – short of doing it yourself. Design fees on this level range from 3-5% of the overall cost of construction.

Cons: Your project won’t benefit  from the creative verve and trained eye of a design professional.

A Few Design Options Other clients have a general idea what they want, but can’t visualize the solution. They seek out the designer for help in determining the best option to suit their wants and needs. Here, the architect or designer adds the creativity, and the years of training and experience to provide the clients with suitable and appropriate design options to choose from. Usually the designer shows at least three possible options to begin with, at a design meeting. Revisions follow, as needed, until the client is contented and happy. Commonly, a standard design contract includes one round of revisions, which are determined at that same meeting. Changes of heart and “while-you’re-at-its..” beyond that, are usually treated as change orders, according to the contract. Once the design is finalized, your designer will provide you with a set of drawings that communicate all information required to obtain a building permit, as well as any unique details of the design. Like the basic Design Documentation, this level of service requires budget allowances for items not included in the scope of design, and generally runs between 5% – 10% of the overall cost of construction.

Pros: The Internet has made it much easier for people to shop for things that were earlier only available wholesale to the design community. So, for the DIY-enthusiast, this is a very popular option.

Cons: Even if you have access to the vast resources of the design community, you end up paying retail prices.

The Comprehensive Design Solution This level begins much like Design Options (see above), but takes the designer involvement much further. The resulting Construction Documents include construction details, custom solutions, interior elevations, lists and schedules of all appliances, fixtures, doors, finishes, etc., plumbing and electrical plans, and calls out specific products for all these components. The drawings are complemented by a list of Specifications. Together, these form the basis for the contracting bidding process. As the bids come in, the Schedule of Costs can be completed and presented to the client. Based on the numbers, the clients then decides whether they want to adjust any of the selected products in order to tweak the costs. This option involves a lot of research, and all the decision making takes time, which is reflected in the design fees. Generally, the fees for this level of commitment ranges from 8% – 12% of construction costs.

Pros: This is the kind of project that usually end up featured in the shelter media. The on-going and lavish attention of the designer results in a cohesiveness of design that is hard to beat. The level of detail in the drawings/specs allows for very accurate bids and for this kind of full service job the designer manages all purchasing, which reflects savings to the client. Having it all “in the bag” reduces the level of stress on the client, as they know what their costs are going to be.

Cons: The upfront design fees are more substantial.


About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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