On Being a perfectionist

By November 18, 2011business, mutterings

The idea of architect billing for their services as a percentage of construction cost has, in the past, struck me as inherently unfair but increasingly, I am seeing the merit in that method of compensation.

In my own experience, when building hourly, this leaves the opportunity open to pick and choose from my services as one would a drafting service. I run into the situation where the design has a lot of refinement necessary to make it great and the client doesn’t want to spend the money on more design and more meetings. It becomes a matter of standards and, being a perfectionist, my standards are normally higher than my client’s. I look back on past built work and feel disappointment when I see things that could have been so much better or situations when I “gave away” time to make something right because the client was not willing to pay to do so. I think this is where architects who bill for their services as a percentage of construction cost often screw themselves. Being perfectionists, when billing a fixed fee, the longer we spend on a project “getting it right”, the lower the equivalent hourly rate becomes. Soon, the architect is down around $20 or $30 an hour which is completely unsustainable and leaves us trying to explain to our families on April 15th how we worked our asses off all year and only made $25k. But, at least, when billing based on a percentage of construction costs, the end result is likely to be a lot better.


  • Lee Calisti says:

    Interesting post. I’ve wrestled with this many times and I still don’t have an answer. I have typically avoided the percentage method because it eliminates your motivation to keep the costs down. However, many clients never tell you what they are really willing to spend once they see how great your design is. If I had billed that way on many of my projects I would have made a ton more money and gotten paid for that time I gave away.

  • bob says:

    I think my nature is inherently toward cheapest possible good solutions. Much of the the time, clients make me enlarge the design usually only because they are used to big. I am used to small. I have also had clients avoid giving me a budget number up front. I don’t let that happen anymore because they start chopping and cutting the priced-out-by-a-builder “final” design instead of doing the chopping and cutting in schematics.

  • bob says:

    Of course “Life of an Architect” explains fees nicely here for those interested.

  • Jeremiah says:

    I am of two minds on billing for fees. I would say that both methods have their place. As in, on a large commercial project it is impossible to accurately estimate the time required to properly design and detail the documents, so a fixed percentage cost is the most efficient way to calculate a fee for services. On the other hand it is very easy, if you’re reasonably experienced, to estimate the time and energy it will take to design and detail a modest single family residence.
    Whichever way you choose to go, I think there are two things to keep in mind. The first is to simply be consistent. If you go with fixed percentage, stay with it unless a small project comes along that warrants a lesser fee, and vise versa. The second is to be clear and upfront with your fee and costs with your clients. One of the first architects I ever worked for taught me a valuable lesson. He said “be upfront and bill your clients for everything you’re supposed to. They’ll respect you much more for that than if you give things away.”

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Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz
Robert Swinburne in Brattleoboro, VT on Houzz


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