Data Mining – how much time does design take?

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I recently dug through several year’s worth of billing to be able to better estimate how much time different sorts of projects take me. The end result is that I am not able to better estimate the amount of time different sorts of projects take. But the information is pretty interesting and I thought I’d share. When I look at time sheets for pre-sketchup projects I see more time relative to the whole spent building models. Two recent projects show less than 25 hours on basic schematics in the form of multiple sketchup models and some CAD floor plans as well as some initial measuring and documenting existing conditions. The same projects a decade ago would have involved 50 hours or more to get to the same level of resolution and would have involved cardboard, glue, exacto knives, band aids and lots of tracing paper (“trace” in architect speak) Overall time spent on a project is probably about the same. I have always been relatively speedy at design and getting things done – that hasn’t changed much over the years. The big difference is the quality of my work. Current projects show a higher level of resolution, cleaner solutions to design issues and more complete construction drawing sets. The amount of time is important because I currently charge on an hourly basis and relatively cheaply too, compared to other architects. (don’t look too closely at the rust on my truck and please don’t notice the glue holding my sneakers together) I was at my mechanic’s garage recently to discuss the holes in my exhaust and noted that he charges the same hourly rate as I do.

A brief synopsis of 10 major projects with time spent by my office.

1. new house – simple – 2500 s.f., 450K budget – 57.5 on schematics, 205 overall
2. major high style addition – 2000+ s.f., 600k budget – 85 on schematics, 200 overall
3. small but extensive addition – 900 s.f., <200k budget (priced at close to 300k) 30 schematics, 125 overall (an example of the owner refusing to believe it couldn’t be built for 200k and it remains unbuilt)
4. mid size/budget addition – 1100 s.f., 225K budget 25 on schematics, 100 overall
5. Large house – 3500s.f., 700k budget – 150 house schematics (several iterations) 368 hours overall
6. Large addition/renovation – 2500+s.f. 650K budget complicated site and shifting parameters 145 schematics, 473 overall
7. new house – 2500 s.f, 450k budget – multiple iterations – 95 on schematics, 275 overall
8. new house – 2600 s.f. 300K budget – super simple design, 53 on schematics, 128 overall – limited construction drawings. (never did find out how much this ended up costing, I had expressed doubts that it could be done for 300k but the builder assured me it could.)
9. Large house – 3500s.f., 700k budget – 175 on schematics (tough and tight site with several iterations) 410 overall
10. Vermont Simple House 1 on sale at houseplans.com involved over 150 hours total including the first iteration which was for a competition and later, the complete construction drawing set. Size= 1500 s.f., est. cost $225k

When go through the files for these and other past projects, It is interesting to look at the very beginning when clients brought me their initial sketches and models they had been working on. The overall parameters tended not to change as much as I would have thought. A common thread is that their initial work didn’t go very far towards expressing their stated and written goals. They also usually had unrealistic expectations of what things cost. It is also interesting to look at how many very small projects I have done – solving floor plan issues, mudroom and porch additions, renderings to see how an addition might look – I don’t seem to get those projects much anymore. I suspect because they are more local and not much is happening in Brattleboro right now according to local builders.

Recently, a common thread seems to be potential clients who say “ this should be a really simple project – I know exactly what I want and will make quick decisions. You wouldn’t’ even have to charge your normal fees.” (yeah right – red flag) Then they proceed to show me images from magazines and the web of extremely highly designed projects where the architect’s fee was around 15% and the budget was obviously very high. This never happened before 2008. Back then it was more that what clients brought to an initial meeting was simply too big and complicated to match their budget and they knew it. Which is why they sought out and architect or were directed to me by their builder. I can also say that the majority of my clients came to me because they had limited budgets and lofty goals and needed someone to help them through the decision making process to get the best possible end result given the limited amount of money available.

5 Comments

  1. Bob,
    Very interesting to see your mining results. I have recently done a similar historical analysis and came to a similar conclusion – there’s no real rule of thumb I can apply at the outset of a project. As a designer / builder for over 28 years, I’ve been able to track costs from concept to Cert. of Occupancy. Much of this data folded back into the rate structure I currently use (itself not etched in stone). Also over the years, my use of CAD tools has changed the way I work and what I can produce for field production. As you found I have also seen that my design resolution through the use of CAD produces a much better resolution and effortlessly translates into working drawings. I still have rolls of trace in the office – It’s the first medium I employ for schematic resolution of any design.
    I’m curious what your billings as % of job cost average out to (If you don’t mind my asking). That is the primary reason I continually check back on my billings / const. cost ratio so I can be assured I’m giving my clients an accurate evaluation of the project costs before we even put pencil to trace.

    Milo

  2. Bob, this is an interesting study that I might have to do myself and then write about it too. I think your overall hours are low. You should probably raise your rate too so you can buy a new muffler. I think what is most important for others to get out of this is that architecture takes time. We don’t just sit down and “draw up some plans.” People usually will pay as much for something as they value it. That’s the good and bad news.

  3. Typical clients are only willing to pay for what the lowest fee architect in town wants to be paid. Any serious research or design time are treated like street performance by clients ; they pay when they feel like it.

  4. My fees as a percentage of construction cost range from 3 to 7 percent. – usually it has more to do with the complexity of a project than anything. My main competition is not other architects but builders who will build from a sketch that they do on graph paper and “not charge for design” Most people actually go for that around here. I also suspect I would work a lot more if I cut my rate in half.

  5. No new muffler yet.

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