The Architectural Process, Your Money and Your Time

The Architectural Process: Your Time and Money

I field several calls a week where the first question is, “How do you work? Of course, perfecting the answer to this is a lifelong endeavor. Every time I think I’ve got it, a new type of project or a new way of doing things presents itself.   All architects work differently depending on the size of the firm, the expertise, and the level of service. Unfortunately there is a good deal of mystery regarding business practices even within the industry. I will try to be transparent and helpful, but I can only share what I currently know and what applies to Laraarchitecture.

So here is the “nitty gritty” as it relates to the architectural process, your money and your time. 

The first step is to build a program and establish a budget. Your architect gets to hear all your dreams and yes, you also have to tell her how much money you have to spend! A good architect can tell you right away within the first meeting if these two things are compatible, meaning the project seems feasible. It is often the case where compromises between budget, time and quality are anticipated and the architect’s job is to help you navigate a good balance.

The program is a list of requirements for the project or a “wish list”. This list includes the number and types of spaces and their functions. The list should include desired architectural qualities and attributes right down to the number of burners on the stove. The list can cover processes such as a desire to stay out of extensive design review or to get LEED certified. The program is what you agree is the architect’s scope of work.

This program, your construction budget and the architectural fees are folded into an agreement. Every architect uses a different method to calculate fees. Based on experience and the program, I can anticipate how much time each task will take so I provide a fixed fee broken down by phase (phases described below).

It turns out that those estimates typically fall between 8% and 12% of the construction budget. You will also encounter fees from structural engineers, civil and soils engineers, and energy consultants. These fees typically run 1.5% to 4% of the construction budget.

Here is an example of the above generic formula:


So what about the time factor? Your agreement with your architect should include reliable time frames typical to accomplish each phase of the process. An example from one project looked like this.Some architects including me, have a minimum fee. I have to let go of many wonderful small projects because my firm is also small, in fact it’s just me with the periodic help of one or two other drafts people. I can only promise the attention that is deserved to several projects at a time.


Your architect should be your partner and as such should always respond in a timely manner. It is often the case where clients need time to consider options and/or solicit pricing along the way. Hand holding is part of the job. The above example is based on the time it takes to do our work and excludes the time required for client decision, contractor feedback and the approval process by zoning and building departments.

In other words, allow time for good design. I have never worked on a project where a building permit was issued in less than 5 months from the first meeting and often can go into a year. This is because it’s a lot of work for everyone involved. It’s more efficient to have the design, the materials and all the details completely flushed out before construction begins; it saves money and time in the long run.

Here is how a design unfolds phase by phase:

Schematic Design

This is the architects’ initial brainstorm, a broad “brush stroke” that addresses floor plan, elevations and overall massing of the building. Basic functions are laid out and the architectural character of the building is defined. With permission, schemes can be presented that push the budget envelope but there should always be a desirable design that falls comfortably within the established budget.

Sketches, scaled drawings and 3d models help clients visualize ideas during this stage

Sketches, scaled drawings and 3d models help clients visualize ideas during this stage.

Before you go beyond this stage it is ideal to begin a partnership with a contractor for pre-construction services. They can provide square footage pricing which can determine if the design is headed in the right direction. Below is an example of a square footage diagram used for this purpose.

The culmination of the schematic design phase is a design you are excited about that has been tested against the budget. The result is a set of drawings that describe the proposed building or building changes that are submitted to your city for land use and zoning approval.

Design Development

This is a highly collaborative time between architect and owner. During design development the design is explained even further with more drawings, and drawings that are larger in scale. Engineers come on board and building systems are defined.

Cabinets are laid out in detail during design development and models are developed further as needed.

Cabinets are laid out in detail during design development and models are developed further as needed.

Construction Documents:

Up till now we have been mostly concerned with what the building looks like, this phase is where we define how the building is constructed.  There is extensive collaboration with engineers, energy consultants and product manufacturers. Compliance with building codes is documented. More drawings are created. Construction details are developed that support and enhance the overall architectural intentions. A working project manual is created with material specifications, product tear sheets and plumbing, lighting, and equipment schedules (or lists).

Construction Details and a Project Manual are developed during this phase.

Construction Details and a Project Manual are developed during this phase.

The Construction Documents are approved by client and then submitted to the county building department for review.

Bidding and Negotiation

You are ready to find a builder. You can resume your partnership with contractor previously on board for estimating or you can competitively bid the project. The architect guides you through this process and is available to contractors for questions and clarifications.

Construction Administration

A good architect will not just drop off plans and a permit and wish you good luck. To this end, the architect attends weekly or bi-weekly meetings during construction to review progress as it relates to the design intent. I review shop drawings from custom fabricators and navigate necessary changes or questions in the field to support the overall design intent.

Many important design decisions happen in the field in

Many important design decisions happen in the field in collaboration with contractors along the way. Above are example of on-site sketches and a shop drawing review.

That about does it except for a few punch list items and the end of construction party!

As you can see the process puts you and your architect in a collaborative supportive relationship for up to 2 years, sometimes longer. There are guaranteed to be ups and downs along the way. When approached with positive attitude, the entire process should be fun and rewarding. The result is years of enjoyment in a home that is unique to you.

The time and money invested in the architectural process?…….worth every penny and every minute!


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