Who should I hire first, architect or builder? That is the question I address in this article. This article has been one of the hottest articles I’ve ever written if the comments are any indication. So I’ve republished this important issue for those who have not gone back in time to find it. I am neither an architect nor a home builder, but in all my work I have always had a sincere desire to seek the truth, wherever that may lead. As a real estate attorney for 20 years I saw repeating patterns in which consumers kept getting the short stick in their relationships with other professionals (lawyers, accountants, financial advisers, architects, contractors, real estate agents, auto mechanics, and the list goes on). After years of recognizing the pattern that was far from consumer-centric, I learned to ask new questions. I learned that it was not wise to assume, but much wiser to do one’s due diligence and to carefully reconsider conventional wisdom. So the question of who should be hired first, architect or builder, is a relevant question for any consumer who intends to build a home today.
Architect or Builder – The Chicken or the Egg
It is conventional wisdom that if you are planning to have your next home built, you should first hire an architect. Because of my experience with a large number of clients over 20 years who had nightmare experiences with both architects and builders, I learned to question conventional assumptions and to review the entire process and experiences of many who have gone before.
So the question is, “Who do you hire first–the architect or the home builder?” Most would assume the answer is the architect. But is that true, and what are the implications of hiring the architect first? Let’s play this out by running parallel experiences–one where the client hires the architect first, and the other where the client hires the home builder first.
Architect or Builder – The Architect First?
Hire the Architect First. A California couple had been reading about Sequim for five years and decided to purchase an incredible 10 acre parcel overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Once they purchased their property, they contacted a Seattle architect, because an architect they knew of in Santa Barbara had recommended him. After some meetings, telephone calls, and emails, they signed a contract with their Seattle architect. A standard fee for a Seattle architect is 8% to 10% of the cost of the house. Since the house was estimated to cost $1 million, their architect’s fee would be about $80,000.
The architect immediately began the detailed architectural plans, which would take many weeks. The architect had a good friend who was a custom home builder (also in the Seattle Metro area), and he strongly urged his clients to hire that builder. He did mention a couple of other builders, but his voice and facial expressions gave him away, and clearly the only builder he trusted was “the one.” He did not mention to his clients that he refers all the business he can to that builder who is a good friend. In the real world, it is common for referrals for expensive projects to be richly rewarded under the table. I will assume that did not happen in this case, but let’s not be naive to conflicts of interest that may cost consumers a lot of money without them ever knowing.
The clients accept their architect’s recommendation to the Seattle builder who is willing to build a home in Sequim. When the architect finishes his work, he gives the plans to the builder. There hasn’t been a lot of communication between the two. The architect is an artist, and all he really wants to see is that his masterpiece is built within his vision. The architect is not a builder, never has been, and is not good at estimating the actual cost of materials and labor to implement his vision. Therefore, the architect has many expensive features in the design that the clients would not want if they knew it would add greatly to the cost for a pretty but not especially functional purpose. Understanding this is one of the reasons one begins to ask, architect or builder first?
On the other hand, the custom home builder is concerned about cost, and he recognizes those features that add excessive costs, but he has a great relationship with the architect, who referred these clients to him, and so the builder does not spend a lot of time educating his clients about ways to reduce the cost while achieving their personal dream within their original design concept. The clients trust their architect and their builder. Both are at the top of their profession, and they are not cheap. They must be the best since they charge so much.
As the builder begins building the home, he finds a number of small but not inexpensive nuances in the architectural plans. They are actually mistakes or features the architect literally did not address. For example, the architect did not include drainage spouts on the house, which also did not address the need for curtain drains and the additional drainage needed around the house. The plans had to be sent back to the architect, edited, and then the builder would implement the edited plans. This change alone added almost $12,000 to the total cost. But there were half a dozen other changes the builder recommended were essential to avoid other problems in the future. Some builders take advantage of add-ons or extras, and this is where they can make a lot of profit. Whereas the profit margin on a total contract may be 15%, the profit on an extra can be 100%.
What did not happen here that should have was a good line of communication between the architect and the home builder from the very beginning. When cost is not a factor for the professionals involved, communication is less important, and educating the clients to more efficient ways to complete the design they have in their minds is also less important. Trusting someone who has their own agenda on cost and profit can play against the consumer’s best interests, but most consumers have never thought about this dichotomy: architect or builder first.
In this case, the completed cost of the home, not counting the price of the land, was about $1.2 million. The architect charged $85,000. The clients got their home, but there were numerous features they paid for that they did not need and would not have paid for if they had known how much those features added to the total cost of the contract.
One of the lessons here is that architects are not motivated to keep costs down. They are motivated to see their vision completed by a builder. This is the way the profession works. A builder who has a lock with a Seattle architect is most likely a very expensive builder who is also not motivated to reduce the cost to the client. The higher the price of the home, the more the builder makes. Most builders are paid on a cost-plus contract.
Architect or Builder – The Builder First?
Hire the Home Builder First. Home builders are not all the same, just like Realtors are not all the same. It is critical to do your due diligence to find a truly competent and honest home builder who will give you straight estimates and be honest with you throughout the project planning and construction. You can literally discuss your design plans with this kind of home builder and talk about how he works with an architect to make sure that your home is built the way you want it built.
But there is another huge factor that is vitally important to you, and that is your home builder must understand your budget and your priorities. This means your home builder must work to help you achieve your goal without wasting a single dollar on features you don’t really care about. That cupola is cute, but would you really want it if you knew it would cost you $7,000? Probably not. That ceiling dome in the dining room the architect designed is beautiful, but would you pay for it if you knew that a first class ceiling dome was made of fiberglass, gypsum or polyurethane, and would add $18,000 to the cost of your home? Maybe not.
Hiring a builder who is on your side means he is not motivated to inflate the cost of your home, or to accept an architect’s design that will cost you a lot more. A good builder can suggest ways to the architect that will actually reduce the cost of your home. Remember, the architect is not trained in estimating costs or motivated to keep costs down. But a conscientious builder can work with you and an honest architect as a team to achieve your goals within your budget. By the way, be sure your home builder is not using a cost-plus contract, but a guaranteed contract price. That’s honesty and integrity.
In this second scenario, the builder and the architect communicated from the very beginning. In fact, the builder and the architect sat down together before anything was put to paper, and they discussed the clients’ goals and desires and budget. The architectural plans were designed with all that in mind, and the architect charged $9,000, not $100,000. It gets better. The home builder was able to build the client’s dream home for $800,000, not $1.25 million.
These two scenarios are based on true stories, although I have not revealed any names or specifics in order to protect the guilty. The real point of this exercise is to share real life information with you so that you can make wise decisions for you and your family. One of my life’s passions is protecting consumers from those who pretend to work in consumers’ best interests but don’t.
You’ll read many articles on the Internet insisting that your best approach is to hire an architect first, but it’s simply not in your best interests, at least not in the real world. I have a simple statement that answers a lot of questions when you are trying to find out the truth of someone’s motivation. I like to say that the answer is often revealed if you just “follow the money.”
Would I take a referral fee for referring someone to a builder or to an architect? I would, but only if the builder or the architect were truly working in the client’s best interests, and the fee they paid me did not in any way compromise their dream or the cost to achieve their dream. In any event, I would discuss that with my client, because I believe in full disclosure. Most of all, I believe that consumers deserve the whole truth and unconditional honesty and loyalty from the professionals they hire. The issue of who to hire first, the architect or builder, is a relevant issue today. There is no right and wrong answer, but there are issues and questions to be answered. Let me know what your experience has been. Who did you hire first, the architect or builder?
Last Updated on October 25, 2012 by Chuck Marunde
Your information is not at all complete and very detrimental to licensed architects. Where you are quick to state in your article that Architect “A” charged 8%-10% of the construction cost for his services, you then shift to another scenario where Architect “B” charged only 1% for his services. Now there’s a very big gap between fees here for the same project. If any architect can design an $800,000 custom new home for a 1% fee then he is crazy and will be out of business soon. The only way to bring down an architect’s fees is to reduce the scope of his services which was probably done with Architect “B”. It appears that the contractor in this scenario was very involved in the planning of the project and could simplify and reduce the scope of required services by the Architect. This helps to reduce fees, but the contractor can only go so far-he is not designing the structure, sealing the plans and taking responsibility for the design. For a full scope of architectural services for a custon new house, services that will benefit any homeowner unless the architect is not qualified, a fee of 8-10% of the construction cost is reasonable.
Better than this, ask the architect to structure his fee as a lump sum based on a specific description of services from start to finish.
Response from Chuck Marunde: Thank you for reading my article and taking the time to share your thoughts. You say that my information is not all complete, but you are not able to explain what is incomplete or what is not true about this article. The two examples on architect fees are both true. This article was written with 37 years of experience with clients telling me their experiences, so this article is based on reality and many many clients’ difficult experiences. You suggest that the architect in my article who only charged 1% would be out of business. Not true. That was his fee, and he designs the best homes I’ve ever seen. As a matter of fact, he used to be a high priced Seattle architect who charged $80,000 a pop for house plans. You argue that there’s nothing wrong with an architect charging 8 to 10% of the cost of the home. I respect your opinion, but I (and many many clients) disagree. That is an exorbitant fee. I understand one of the largest Seattle architectural firms went out of business this past year and after decades, they are gone. Of course, the market is down and people are not building homes like they used to. We all get that, but the architects who were making millions of dollars in fees are now unemployed. Maybe they are going to have to develop a different business model and charge less fees. Offices with lower overhead could help them. Using the Internet and efficient technologies could help them. A new marketing approach could help them. We will all be glad when the real estate market comes back from the grave, but let’s face it, we all must adjust our business models. I think architects must re-create themselves, too.
If architect “B” designed a home for $9000, let’s assume he charged $100/hour. (my plumber charges more per hour as does my mechanic). This means that architect “B” could only work 90 hours which is less than 12 days. Two weeks to draw an entire house? can you show where the quality is in 12 days worth of detail and thought in a million dollar home? I would like to see the drawings comparing the two Thanks.
Oh, yes follow the money…you stated that Architect “A” only cared about his artistic vision, but end your article with that famous phrase “follow the money”
Do you have proof of your sweeping statement that all architects get kickbacks from builders they recommend? I have gotten many, many projects for many builders and never, ever have I received “money under the table”. True, I don’t recommend the “one”, even if I have favorites, precisely so that the client can interview various builders and make their own choice. But nonetheless, they aren’t getting the job without my reference. But your article, regardless of some truth in it (SOME architects don’t know about construction (I do);SOME architects don’t care about budgets (I do), etc.) paints architects as completely irresponsible, self-centered and, basically, cheats, unless they charge about 1%. I don’t make as much money as sub-contractors or generals as is: unless one has tremendous, tremendous volume, one cannot charge the fees you mention. And as far as I’m concerned, such volume would mean I wouldn’t be able to do the creative design clients are paying me for in the first place. I don’t have an issue with someone hiring someone for the lowest fee but I see so much garbage out there because of that, that I wouldn’t be so quick to paint selfish architects as the problem. They can have more value than you think, and I’ve seen the other side of your story: clients with a lifetime of expertise in the real estate world that understand the value added by good design and how worthwhile it is. Luckily I have happy clients and I’ve always worked hand in hand with builders getting the budget right at the earliest stages.
Editor: With all due respect, you do not read very well. The author never said “all architects get kickbacks.” Not even close. If that was the premise of your argument, I think it is reasonable to suggest that your argument fails as it is based on false conclusions. You sound like an architect who has integrity, and for that I commend you. But you also wrongly conclude that the author “paints architects as completely irresponsible, self-centered and, basically cheats.” The author never wrote any of those things. You did. You appear to be very defensive. Why? The author wrote his opinion and analysis based on 37 years in real estate, including 20 years as a real estate attorney, plus 30 years of experience by a highly successful builder. That is 67 years of experience, and I think the article very articulately expressed a very consumer-oriented and solidly reasoned opinion. Your arguments, I think, are very emotional, and jump to erroneous conclusions. The factual analysis and consumer advice in the article stand. Let consumers decide who’s advice is in their best interests.
Great article. I would say this is quite accurate. My brother in law went through a nightmare, but he might have saved himself a lot of problems and attorney’s fees if he had read your article first. Thank you.
Dear Mr. Murande:
I replied to one of your posts last September and forgot about it. I just noticed your reply on the net and felt I should reply in turn for clarification because, in the big picture, I feel we are on the same page, however coming from different angles. And just so you know I neither felt defensive or emotional when I wrote the last one, so maybe you were reading too much into that!
So here goes. I respectfully can give you the same reply that you don’t read very well either! You say you have a sincere desire to get to the truth and that it is not wise to assume… and then give only one example of a bad architect to stand for all in whether to hire an architect first. I understand your rationale for this, for giving the worst case scenario, but you could give this same story for a builder as well (watch the movie “The Money Pit”— although a comedy, it is not funny for people who have been through this all-too real experience).
As far as “truth” goes, you say that as conventional wisdom goes, people assume they should hire the architect first. I would say this isn’t true, even for custom homes. In fact you since you are into the truth, you can do the research yourself and you will find that a very small percentage of homes are designed by architects and the vast majority are by builders, so that is one falsehood right there. And from my experience, the first thing that does get thrown out on a budget is the architect, since people assume that one can save on design. This is one of the reasons I have valued my low-budget clients more than any because by simply hiring an architect they show how committed they are to good design.
In your one example of an architect, which in effect stands for all architects, he only introduces his client to one builder and you write that he does not mention to his clients that he refers all his business to him. You then follow that with the comments that referrals are richly rewarded under the table, and even when you write that you assume this did not happen in this scenario you negate that observation by saying that their will be conflicts of interest that will cost the consumers a lot of money without them even knowing it. So to me, someone who does all of what YOU wrote is taking kickbacks, is being irresponsible, and are cheats.
You then make the sweeping statement that all the architect really cares about is to see his masterpiece built to his vision and adds costs his clients don’t know about and would not want and that architectS (plural is yours, not mine) are not motivated to keep costs down. Therefore I read YOUR words that architects (in my mind, if they are acting like this) are again irresponsible and self-centered. For you to say my reading isn’t even close does not feel very truthful to me: different words for the same thing that you have expressed. I don’t see how summarizing what you wrote is “defensive”.
Your are absolutely right, there are architects like these, and, in fact, there are some legendary stories of historic architects who broke the clients bank on such projects. But to give what you wrote as the one example of why it’s wrong to hire an architect first, to me, is a very poor example.
Where I agree with you is when you say “it is critical to do your due diligence to find a truly competent and honest home builder” and say the same for hiring an architect, REGARDLESS of whom you hire first. And then all the things that you mention as critical with a builder— understanding budget and priorities, having the professional on your side, having both builder and architect working together— go the same for an architect.
You see, your article gives one path with an architect that assumes the worse and is a nightmare and another with a builder that assumes the best and is the way to go. In my town, my experience has been the opposite in terms of the nightmares: I’ve seen and heard far, far more stories about builders that created black holes that vacuumed money endlessly from clients and that even bankrupted some (what do you think the truth is, that you are going to spend more money paying a builder or an architect? That one is not even close). There are just as many dishonest builders as there are dishonest architects I would guess. And yes, I respect your many years of experience, but I’m not going to ignore my own lifetime of experience also: those years don’t make either of us the sole arbitror of “truth”.
The role of an architect and a builder is to make their client happy, whether it’s a large budget or a small budget. It’s the job of the client to find these honest professionals and also to stand up to them when they start ripping them off. And from my point of view it’s a lot easier to fire an architect in design, with little invested, than a builder who has you halfway though construction light years beyond your budget with no end in sight and people get so scared that they can’t finish the project without him that they just carry on. It’s very sad.
Lastly, I just want to reiterate that architects have value. The vast majority of my projects, like 95%, came from clients hiring me first, not the builder, and we had honest builders and avoided the problems that you describe. And I have recently had some homes that sold in this very tough market where homes have been for sale for years… and I would hope that good design was a key to that so it was a huge bonus back to the owners. And yeah, they were grateful to me.
I hope that clarifes where I’m coming from and that I did read your article which I felt missed a lot of the “some architects” regarding bad ones as opposed to the honest ones that only the angel builders know about!
Good luck in helping people not get ripped off and getting the best value for their investment.
Sincerely, charles van block, architect, sedona, arizona
I agree with many of the posters that your article clearly insinuates (although not stating directly) that architects do not care about the financial needs of the client, and that a homebuilder does.
As a licensed architect with over 25 years of personal experience, I can attest to the fact that the opposite is often true. We have seen in a majority of cases that our services saved the client considerable amounts of money through competitive bidding with quality Construction Drawings and Specifications.
Your architect who charges 1%, exactly what level of services does he provide? How detailed are his drawings? Does he issue CSI Standard Specifications? Does he assist in the bidding process? Does he provide complete on-site construction supervision, including shop drawings, evaluation of test results, and acting as the liason between the Owner and Contractor should disputes arise? For that fee, my guess would be that he cannot afford to, thus exposing the Owner (his client) to extreme risk.
You claim to be writing from years of experience, so certainly you have seen examples of qualified architects who are concerned with more than their expensive “artistic vision.” And certainly, you have seen your share of fly-by-night contractors who provide shoddy work for inflated prices. Let’s see an article about them as well, and perhaps we can take your opinions more seriously.
Editor: I don’t disagree with much of what you say. There are good architects out there. Many. I’ve had the privilege of working wiht some great architects. But this article isn’t about great architects and how reasonable their fees are. My point is that many clients get the short end of the bargain if they don’t know there even is an issue with how the home building and architecture businesses work, and I have in fact seen many people get hurt. Remember, I am very consumer-centric. You’ll find me sharing valuable tips for consumers that often are critical of a practice in the architectural field, but also home building, law practice, real estate sales, and other areas where consumers need help and tips from an insider who has had experience in these areas. Again, everything in my article is factually accurate. I welcome opinions from architects, but it seems architects who comment here are more concerned about being defensive on an emotional level, and much less concerned about consumers. Architects don’t need protection from consumers. Consumers don’t need protection from all architects or even most, but consumers do need protection from a small number of architects, and that my friends is a cold hard fact, like it or not.
You are wrong Ben, architect “B”s drawings were just fine, I asked him as he was serving me a latte at Starbucks. He lost his practice while designing a home for four months for $9,000.
This is a terrible article. Exorbitant fees? Do you have any idea what an architect is licensed to do? If you don’t, here you go… to protect the health, welfare, and safety of the general public. Unfortunately, most people have no idea how a structure is built or what is required to keep it standing and water tight. Architects and builders are trained to do this! It’s just like surgeons being trained to perform surgery on a person!
Now there will always be terrible doctors, builders, and architects… but if you seriously are choosing an architect or builder purely on price, forget building a home as it won’t last and just hit up Walmart for another pair of those $10 shoes!
By the way… there aren’t as many millionaire architects out there as you would like to believe. Those individuals are far and few between. Most of them make their money being involved in other things like real estate, lecture circuits, and professorships.
Architecture can be a comfortable profession if you know what you are doing, but articles like this give a false sense of direction to clients that need someone knowledgeable and capable.
Editor: I am publishing your rant, but let everyone know that you kind of missed a major point. The author did not say do not hire an architect. Maybe you missed the title of the article. In fact, the author wrote that a person should hire a good builder and an architect, and then proceeded to write about the builder and architect working together for the client’s best interest. The question raised is who should a person hire first. What is it about some architects that they so abhor this issue? Is it so bad to put the client’s interest first and pay close attention to costs for the client’s sake? I appreciate you leaving a comment as an architect, but you seem to be proving the very point this article is making. You don’t talk about what is best for the client, only about your fees and what you deserve. You must have completely missed that this is a consumer-centric article. How about an architect writing about how he can design the ideal home for his clients and do it cost efficiently? Wouldn’t that be a first! Any more angry architects out there want to comment?
I am not an architect, in real estate or a builder. However, this article uses some very flawed and manipulative reasoning to suggest that it is better to hire a builder before the architect.
We are given certain facts and premises in the first anecdote that are totally absent from the second. A primary flaw is that while we know the first architect was asked to do a start to finish design, we know very little about what the second architect was actually hired to do.
Estimated cost included in the first, absent in the second; great, they built the home for 800k instead of 1.2 , but that sucks pretty bad if the budget was 500k. Sloppy logic, sloppy writing and letting your passion to protect consumers blind you to the fact that your anecdotes totally fail to support your conclusion that a builder should be hired first. However they do support, in a limited fashion, some common sense wisdom “whether architect or builder, work with people of proven integrity.”
I seldom leave a response, but i did a few searching and wound up here Who Should I Hire First – Architect or Builder? And I actually do have 2 questions for you if you do not mind. Could it be only me or does it appear like some of the comments look like they are coming from brain dead individuals? 😛 And, if you are writing at additional online sites, I would like to follow everything new you have to post.
Over here in England, and Europe for that matter, there appears to be more of a detachment of ego. Functionality has become desirable in design, with architectural detailing acknowledging the way buildings work. The matter you’re describing is purely subjective, there are plenty of idiosyncratic souls out there who get lost in their ‘Vision’. I would suggest you avoid them like the plague, when employing a professional to design your dwelling. Architecture isn’t about how one individual perceives, it’s about a group discovering how people use space and how nature is best incorporated in aiding that experience. Good Architect’s also understand engineering hence function. Bad architects overlook drainage for the artistic bullshit that maybe people connect with, maybe they don’t. I find all the time with the profession (architecture) there is an unfair generalization, derived by comments such as you own, that architects are chasing a vision. The competent, let alone the best architects in the UK are trained to think holistically, with the client’s needs at the top of the list. That said good design cost’s money and takes time.
If you think it’s expensive with an architect, wait till you have 10 builders on a trail and error basis scratching their heads for 10% of the duration of the job. A good builder communicates well with a good architect, like a micro- macro understanding. The builder is faced with close up, real, tangible problems that the architect can solve quickly by a study of the larger scheme and overview of the project.
The only way I can think of answering the question Architect or Builder ? think of them rowing a boat together. If one row’s solely the boat isn’t moving efficiently. If they row together…..
I’m a builder who has studied architecture. Good buildings start with good plans.
I couldn’t agree with you more. You nailed it in this article about architects and builders. Unfortunately, I learned the hard way.
This article seems to paint a broad picture of a very miniscule landscape. I’ve been in the profession for 17yrs and have worked with many many architects and builders. But I have never even come close to experiencing either scenario. Or even heard it via a friend of a friend of friend. I challenge you to do more (better) research and see if your new conclusion can duplicate your claim based on a percentage. Don’t rely so heavily on your 37yrs of experience in real estate. Unless all you have done in 37 yrs is help clients find land and build million dollar homes. You might be sharing real life information, but your diatribe is based on only two claims of truth, your truth. Some of the responses indicate that your claim is likely in a very lonely percentile.
This article is unfounded and of one persons opinion! 37 years of experience as a real estate agent hardly qualifies you as an expert on the subject. In your response to Charles Van Block you said
“…you also wrongly conclude that the author “paints architects as completely irresponsible, self-centered and, basically cheats.” The author never wrote any of those things. You did.”
But in your article you say
“…architects are not motivated to keep costs down. They are motivated to see their vision completed by a builder. This is the way the profession works.
You don’t use the words irresponsible, self-centered and cheat, but the behavior you describe is of one who is irresponsible, self-centered and a cheat. And NO that is not the way the profession works! And you are not qualified to make that statement, unless you are an architect, and no architect would make that statement because it doesn’t work that way. You’re just a house salesman!
In your response to Chuck Marunde you state that you and your clients agree that a fee of 8% – 10% is exorbitant. There are laws in place to protect life and property. There are good materials and bad materials. There are right ways and wrong ways. It’s the architect’s responsibility to ensure that the project is built within the law, with durable materials and weather tight. The architect carries the liability not the GC. But his fee is 18% – 24%!! I’d say the architect’s fee at 8% to 10% does not nearly correspond in the size or degree to his or her duties and responsibilities.
Your article exposes your ignorance to those who know, but sadly it is this kind of polemic opinion that people who don’t understand the process will gravitate to, no matter how baseless and unfounded you are.
Wow, I am amazed at how angry architects are on this subject. I don’t know that these angry people are architects for sure, but clearly they are associated with the architectural business in some way. Their arguments are very poorly constructed, and they tend to attack me personally rather than make their case objectively. Sure makes for interesting reading though, doesn’t it? All opinions are welcome here.
I wish all of my clients read this article before calling me. This is a well written article based a real world experience. I see homeowners wasting so much money and time with backwards thinking. Thank you for putting this out there and keeping it real!