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What Can an Architect Do for You? - Part I

Registered Architect, 40 years experience, investigative forensic specialist, engineering trained, college teacher, NCARB mentor, MBA.


Many things in life are tied together, inseparable. I believe that whole-heartedly and without reservation. If you look closely at this topic as you read, you may find that many of the principles I will discuss here will be very applicable to many other parts of life. You will see how the basic selection criteria could be used in many facets of life.

There are many professions that do so much more than most people know. The Architect is one of those professions. I will illustrate many things that an Architect can do that most people have no idea about, and how many of those services can save anyone time and money. It does not matter whether you are enclosing your carport, adding a room to your house, or building a multimillion-dollar project, but first there are some basics that must be reviewed before we begin.

Basic Business Principles for Consumer and Supplier

All transactions are symbiotic by nature. Each party has something the other party wants (or needs). The consumer has money to spend while the supplier (of a service or product) has a commodity, each of which constitutes a possessed good. When they both agree on a point of equilibrium, they exchange the goods owned (money, service, product). It makes sense and is so very simple. There could be an entire discussion on supply and demand, but that will not be the focus here. The focus will be on the fact that a demand exists, and the business, or seller, responds to fulfill that want or need, be it for a service or a product.

In supplying a commodity, there are three components that must be addressed by the business, or seller, and each on its own sliding scale. These three components are time, cost, and quality. In an ideal world everything would be very inexpensive, available immediately, and of the highest possible quality. Let us look at each of these components individually now. Let us look first at time. Its scale is from immediate to a long wait. Most Americans have great struggle with delayed gratification, and sooner is always better than later. The next component is cost, and this scale goes from free (inexpensive) to a lot of money (very expensive). We all can guess what most Americans want here. Free is always just about the right price. The final component is quality, which goes from the highest quality obtainable to the least cost possible. This component is where price becomes the most noticeable, and this component is driven almost exclusively by cost, as usually quality is driven by cost, i.e. gold jewelry or silver jewelry. Each and every transaction for a good or service will always balance these three factors for both parties. The conducting of business is a matter of balancing all three components for buyer and seller in a symbiotic exchange.

A decision point is made separately by each party, and is based on their individual goals. When both sides conclude that they are receiving the maximum value of all three components, a deal is struck, and the goods are exchanged. Each goes their separate way, content that each got a good deal. That is how the free market works. Look at the figure to the below.


The seller's goal is to sell at the highest profit margin (sell at the highest price with the least amount of production costs), while the buyer's goal is to purchase at the lowest price - receive immediately - with the absolute highest quality possible. You cannot have all three components: fast, inexpensive, and the highest possible quality. As the decision point is recognized on any two components, it moves further away from the other.

Economics 101

There is no such thing as a free lunch. You will give up something always to receive something else. Even a "free" lunch is not free. If you do not pay money for the lunch, you have at least given up time to eat the lunch, time that you could have spent doing something else, but chose not to do. You could have even chosen to spend that time with someone else, but did not. Does that picture seem clear and understandable?

The price paid by the consumer is directly proportional to the cost of production, for instance, the cost of a candy bar and the cost of a TV. It takes more raw materials and man-hours to produce the TV so the buyer will have to pay more than you would for the candy bar. This is the same principle for the design of a building. Due to governmental regulation, it takes almost the same number of man-hours to get your building permit when you enclose your carport as it would to make a significant addition to your home. Sounds strange, but nevertheless, it is true. When I first started my career, over three decades ago, I could do all the drawings required for a new house on about seven sheets. The last house plan that I completed took twenty sheets to obtain the building permit. This all adds costs to doing business, and is ultimately paid by the consumer. As I tell everyone that tells me that politics does not affect his or her life, I point this out. Your vote for City Council, County Supervisor, Legislator, Governor, or even President will all affect this, as these are the people that can directly influence the Governmental interference with these processes, whether it is the local building department, a state housing department, or HUD.

The manpower that is required to produce the work to build any building is basically a set amount; the number of people used to complete a project changes the required timelines for completion. For instance, a project that is deemed to require 160 hours will take one person a month to complete. However, it will take only two weeks if two people are working on it. When the second person is added to the project, there is an associated increase to production costs, in opportunity cost. This opportunity cost is incurred because the resource of the second person precludes that person from working on some other project, which is now losing profit as its timelines are being increased from the loss of production. The loss of profit on the one project must be realized in the production of the other project. That means the project that the resource is taken from will be less profitable, so the project that the resource is added to must be more profitable to offset the lost profits on the short margin project. This balance must be maintained or the business will not be able to survive.

This becomes important in the design of a building, because most fees are based on certain time lines. For instance, with most tenant improvement projects of about 5,000 square feet and lower, the average timeline is about 4 weeks. This allows about a week for initial layout, two weeks for engineering, and a final week for completion. This is a normal schedule because most all tenant improvement projects are completed with a single person in both the Architect's office and the Engineers' offices. If a client needs those plans in two weeks, then it will require a second person in the Architect's office and the Engineers' offices, taking each of those additional resources from other projects, which will now become less profitable themselves. If these steps are not taken, then the plans will be produced in less than optimal conditions, which mean that they will be less accurate, which will impact the construction cost through change orders. The buyer must decide where to spend the dollars, either up front on the accuracy of the drawings, or in the end in contractor change orders. Stop to think, according to most national published books, designs fees should be around 6% of the construction cost for most all projects. If you get those design fees for a project at say 3% construction cost, but you then get change orders from the contractor at 10% of the contracted construction cost, how much savings was really realized on that project?

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When is an Architect Needed?

I have come to the conclusion that when you embark on a project, that is the time to have an Architect review what you are doing. Whether you are enclosing your carport, making an addition, or when you are looking at a piece of land. Before you accuse me of "conflict", bias, or trying to "make work", please take note of a few things. First, if you make an addition, even if a building permit is issued by the jurisdiction, if the addition goes into a required setback, the jurisdiction will be within its rights to require the addition to be torn down for an encroachment of as little as 1". Although this is an extreme case, and most likely will not be the required fix, it helps to have someone on your side that has a rapport with the jurisdiction to advocate for you. I once saw a project where the owner had a Contractor build a pre-manufactured metal parking carport that the City granted a building permit to, and a few years later, was found to be in violation of the stipulations of the re-zone case for the land. Residences next to the office building complained, and the City found out that a permit was issued, but it should have not been issued because it violated the stipulations of the re-zone. I have several times had to tell a client that the land they wanted to build a project on could not be used for the intended use, and a re-zone would most likely never be granted. Another incident concerns a couple I know. They hired a licensed contractor to build a patio cover to their house. Later, they found out, that the contractor did not get the required building permits, as required by law, and did not size the structure appropriately. They filed a complaint with the Registrar of Contractors, and 18 months later, they finally could tear down the shoddy work done and proceed with the reconstruction, and throughout the entire ordeal they faced constant harassment by the County for the illegal addition. By the way, they ended up paying for the patio cover twice.

This sure may not sound right because you cannot believe that someone would be so honest and not take advantage of the situation, let me leave you with this idea. In Arizona, the enabling statute that creates the Architect's registration, the very first directive given by the legislature is, "The purpose of this chapter is to provide for the safety, health and welfare of the public through the promulgation and enforcement of standards of qualification for those individuals registered or certified and seeking registration or certification pursuant to this chapter." (A.R.S. 32-101(A)). The Architect's first responsibility is to the protection of the public's "safety, health, and welfare". How many other professions have this charge in there enabling statutes? How different would our Country be if Lawyer's had this same charge? Never mind …… that is a topic for an entirely different discussion. Rest assured that most Architect's will be honest with you when you need an analysis, but I always suggest a second opinion when you hear something that might not seem right, just as you would for a Doctor.

Selection Criteria

The most important skills the Architect possesses are knowledge, understanding, and command of the building code. History Point: The first building code was the NFPA 101 (National Fire Protection Association) Life Safety Code. This code in its first form came to life shortly after the Chicago fire in 1871 after Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over a lantern that started a fire that burned 2 days, killing hundreds and destroying 4 square miles of Chicago. Since then, building codes have always had a focus on fire within buildings. A clear understanding of this is imperative to the application of the building code and management of life safety inside buildings. Certifications for code enforcement professionals are provided through the International Code Council (ICC).

Another area to look at is one that has become kind of a cliché. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) has become more of a marketing tool in the last few years, but nonetheless it can be a huge benefit in the construction of any building. The goal of LEED is to reduce energy consumption and provide a much cleaner interior environment for the building occupants. Point: LEED accredits people and certifies buildings. The line of reasoning to remember here is that the building does not have to be certified to realize the gains from LEED design. Those gains are realized whether or not the paperwork is filed. Both the accreditation and the certification are provided through the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).


Each Architectural practice, and firm, will gravitate to one particular type of practice from the two-main design emphasis. Those two emphases will be that of a design practice or a production practice. These, too, are on a sliding scale, not unlike the three components that were discussed in the "Basic Business Principle" section above. The drawback with a purely design practice is that technical issues are often neglected because the focus is on the art form of Architecture. An example is the Johnson Wax Building designed by the great Frank Lloyd Wright. The glass tubes were exquisite in the design, but were never really able to be weather tight. They leaked tremendously. The production practice is more concerned with getting the projects done quickly, and with reduced costs. Again, the drawback here will be, once again, the technical issues because there is not enough time to resolve them, as the project usually does not have the time for a thorough approach. The pure production practice is usually more interested in time schedules and reduced cost of production. This spotlights the quality component that was discussed in the "basic Business Principles" section above. Thus, reflecting the production practice focus on the time and cost components, while letting the quality component fall where it will be.

By now, these ties should start to become self-evident. The principles of business and economics are always constant and predictable. The greatest advice that I can give here is this: Paper does NOT prove capabilities. What I am saying is that just because an individual holds a Registration or Certification, that does not mean that they will provide you with the service expected. I know many that are Registered, but I am at a loss on how they had passed. Conversely, I know many that are not Registered or Certified, yet they are more qualified than others that hold those Registration(s) or Certification(s). A better test is what other boards they sit on. You do not want a Plan Reviewer that has the ICC certifications alone, you want to see that the person has sat on code development committees as well. That really shows one that has the required knowledge, understanding, and command of the Building Code.

Services Provided

Design services are generally produced in phases.  These phases are:

  • Site Selection
  • Programming
  • Site / Master Planning
  • Preliminary Design
  • Design Development
  • Construction Documents
  • Bidding Services
  • Construction Administration
  • Project Closeout

When project cost constraints exist, reductions in design fees can be realized by limiting design services.  These reductions come with a cost.  The buyer must now be able to offset the loss of expertise.  Failure to make such compensation may cost dearly if a large issue rears its ugly head, which in my experience is inevitable.  Many times some of these services can be provided in an "on call" manner, or as an added or hourly charge.  This still maintains access to the required expertise. However, it has the potential of lowering costs if no major events come up.  This still leaves the buyer in a risk position, but that may be a risk that the buyer is willing to maintain.  I will break down these services later.  This had to be mentioned now to keep cost in context.  There are other selection criteria that need to be looked at before we come back to these.  The decision to reduce services should be made in light of the selected Architect's skill set.  The most basic question one must ask is, "What is the skill set needed for this project?"

© 2009 Dan Demland

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