Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Infamous Fee

We sometimes forget our mission, lost in the frustration of the constraints of the art.”

Author Unknown

In most architecture schools as a freshman or sophomore, students are asked to explain why they want to become an architect. After all, this is not a walk in the park. Five years of undergraduate, two years of graduate school, three years of internship, five, if one has only the undergraduate degree, the successful completion of one of the most grueling professional exams and finally, finally, one can call oneself an architect. And oh, let’s not forget those continuing education credits for the “right” to continue being an architect. Some students say they want to change the world, others want to become famous and still others want to become wealthy. The first two goals, though lofty, are attainable and a few do rise to the level of fame through changing the built environment, think Frank Lloyd Wright or I. M. Pei. Wealth though is a much more elusive goal, one that most architects never achieve. Sure, most of us are able to make a decent living and take care of our families, but very few of us ever attain the wealth enjoyed by other professions. Our income very rarely resembles that of a doctor or lawyer.

Architecture is both an art and a science. Because of this ambiguity, an architect’s function is not as readily discernable as say a doctor’s services, or a craftsman’s handiwork but undoubtedly, it’s just as important. When the occupant of a room feels a draft, or when there’s not enough light in a space, or if as one becomes older one begins to suffer aches and pains from climbing stairs that are just not correctly proportioned, then one can begin to appreciate the true worth of a good architect. The job of selecting the right materials while at the same time designing spaces that are not only aesthetically pleasing but highly specified and functional can prove to be very challenging and more often than not, can only be wholly achieved through the use of a design professional – the architect. “Confirmitas, Utilitas, Vinustas.” Loosely translated means, it must stand, it must make sense, and it must be beautiful.

Now we come to the all infamous fee. For this minimum ten-year investment in a service-oriented profession, architects charge a fee that at once must be justifiable and fair. There are several industry-accepted ways in which an architect’s fee is calculated. The most popular being a percentage of construction cost which varies from market to market and architect to architect. This fee arrangement is one of the oldest and most widely used in the business and does not include reimbursable expenses. It is important to note here that the percentage has remained static since the 1970’s.

Another method used to determine the architect’s fee is Hourly Cost Plus, that is, the fee is based on the length of time it takes to complete the project, plus reimbursable expenses. There is also the Lump Sum approach where the architect estimates time and expense beforehand and provides the Owner with a flat fee including reimbursable expenses. This is the least favorable method of fee structure among architects. It is impossible to accurately predict how a job will proceed as too many variables can impact the length of a project. Extensive design changes, contractors, subcontractors, these are all aspects of a project not directly controlled by the architect but which have a direct impact on the length of a Project. I am sure you have all heard stories of projects that go on and on and on. Architects sometimes find themselves paying out more to get the job complete than they negotiated for in the Lump Sum agreement. With all the details that an architect has to deal with once a project begins, the last thing he wants is to have to renegotiate his or her fee at any fee structure.

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