Let's Talk About The F-Word…Fees

April 22, 2022
Jared Petitjean
Principal Architect

Alright, it's time to touch on something that I feel doesn't get covered very often outside of when a proposal is submitted. In this post, I'm going to talk about the f-word. No, no, no, not that f-word. I'm talking about fees. Typically, the first time someone realizes how much it costs to hire an architect is when they receive a proposal for the services that will be rendered. Hint, it tends to be higher than what they thought, especially if it's their first time working with an architect. So naturally there is going to be some sticker shock, and I'm not surprised in most cases. First off, most people don't work with an architect on a consistent basis to understand why our fees seem high. The average person tends to think that all we do is draw plans for a living because that is what they see in movies and the media. Drawing plans is only a small portion of what we do. Due to this, most people think that our fees are high for us to just draw. Second, is that we as professionals don't talk about fees all that much due to certain anti-trust laws. Now I'm not going to disclose what my fees are or how I structure them, because it all depends on the project scope and a myriad of other reasons. If you want to know what it would cost to hire me, send message with your project brief and I can provide you a proposal for the work. Maybe we can work together on your next project. For now, though, I want to cover a few areas that involve the fee.

  1. The perception of what you think you are paying for vs what you are really paying for.
  2. The value behind the architect's fee.
  3. Don't always focus solely on the fee when hiring an architect.

What are you paying for?

Let's start off with just one of a few questions I have heard from many a potential client over my 13 plus years in the business, "How much does it cost for a set of plans?" Out of all the questions I have heard regarding the cost of hiring an architect, why did I chose this one as part of the post? You may think that is a very reasonable question to ask since that is what you will get at the end of the design process. In some sense, it is a very reasonable question to ask. You should ask about how much anything is going to cost to make an informed decision. However, what is asked in the question tells me a lot about what a potential client thinks they are paying for. It highlights what I want to cover in this section. The perception of what you think you are paying for versus what you are really paying for.  

Outside of the image that is painted of architects in the media, we live in a consumer world, simply put. We are accustomed to when we pay for something, majority of the time we are paying for something tangible. Whether it is a car, phone, computer, food, you name it. There is a something physical we now possess at the end of the transaction. You could say the same about a building. When you pay a contractor to build a building, you will have a physical building to occupy at the end of the monetary transaction. That is the world we live in. So, when I get the question from a potential client "How much does it cost for a set of plans?" during our initial contact, I know they are asking it from that vantage point. They are associating that the fee is the price for the thing that is tangible and what they see in the media. However, the reality is the fee is the cost to have an architect use their process, which has been refined over years of experience, to design a building that suits your specific needs and take on the associated liability. You are paying for the architect's expertise essentially to get your design from point A, an idea, to point B, the finished design. The plans and project manual are the byproduct of that process.

The value behind the architect's fee

pilots in airline cockpit.

Now that I have described what a client is really paying for, let's dive more into that intangible thing called the process that is not seen by most. The best way I can describe the process and the architect's role is to use the analogy of when you fly on an airliner. You pay an airline for seat on a flight that will take you from point A to point B. You do this because you don't know how to fly an airplane or how to navigate the skies properly. The pilot's job is to do that. The pilot has the knowledge, experience, and skills to navigate the skies to get you from point A to point B successfully and safely. You are hiring an architect to do something similar. The architect is the pilot, the firm is the airline company, and the process is how the pilot flies the plane from point A to point B successfully. The architectural process is structured to help an architect get you from point A to Point B successfully. Unlike pilots flying in the skies, architectural processes can differ from architect to architect or firm to firm. My process is setup to create as close to a high-performance design as I can achieve given the client's budget and project scope. I have covered this in a previous post, "What Does and Architect Do?". I suggest going read that post after this one. For the sake of this post, I have listed below some, but not all, of the things that are part of my process that help move us towards a well-suited, high-performance design.

  • Understanding the clients' overall goals and construction budget
  • Site analysis to understand the best possible location of the building based on solar orientation, geographical features, applicable zoning requirements, circulation path around the site for pedestrian and vehicular traffic.
  • Spatial diagrams to understand adjacencies of rooms to create an efficient floor plan.
  • Researching the appropriate building systems and materials that bring value to a project, provide the best life cycle cost, and can also fit the client's budget.
  • Organizing material and color palettes
  • Planning equipment and furniture layouts to ensure that pieces are accounted and fit with in a space prior to construction.
  • Planning mechanical, electrical, and plumbing layout so everything is where it needs to be.
  • Energy compliance analysis to see if a design will meet current energy conservation requirements.
  • Curating clear and concise details for construction to eliminate confusion and misinterpretation in the field during construction.
  • Formulating a project manual with all the associated material specifications and workmanship requirements.

That is a brief rundown of some of the areas I cover in my process. There is much more to it, and all that leads up to the byproduct of the plans and project manual, which everybody is accustomed to seeing.

Don't focus solely on the fee when hiring an architect.

Cost is always going to be a concern when paying for something with your or your company's hard-earned money. It should be if you are doing your due diligence. Everybody wants to get the best value for their dollar. However, if you are basing your decision on which architect to hire solely on how much they charge, then you are potentially doing yourself or your company a disservice. I believe a client should ask themselves first will the architect be a good fit. I tell my clients this all the time when I go over my proposal. If I am providing a proposal, I feel that it will be a good fit for me, but it also must be a good fit them too. Architects all design buildings, but we all approach how to develop an idea and design buildings differently. That is why you shouldn't base everything solely of the fee amount. If there is a good fit between you and the architect, then then you will get the best value for your money no matter what the fee is. If you make the decision solely on fee, you may end up hiring an architect that maybe doesn't align with your beliefs or priorities. It may become a negative experience vs a positive one and you may end up spending more time, energy, money getting things right.


Hopefully I was able to pull back the curtain back somewhat and provide a better understanding about what you as a client are paying for when you hire an architect. Just remember, when you hire an architect, you are not buying a set of plans. The plans are the byproduct of the design process that the architect has established to help design you a building or space that meet your specific requirements. When you are ready to hire an architect, hire them because they are the right fit, not because they have the lowest price. You will have a better experience and get more value out of the money spent on having an architect design your project.

Photos by: Colin Watts on Unsplash and Blake Guidry on Unsplash

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