small projects :: budgets


Every project has a budget; there’s never enough money to do what everyone wants.

Value engineering, cost cutting, scope change, that’s expensive, we can’t afford that – you’ve heard it before, blah, blah, blah.

What makes this issue distinctive among small projects? There’s no single answer, but I’ll share a few experiences for both residential and commercial projects.



I have been fortunate to have designed many exciting projects, none of which came at a small price tag. Granted, not everyone can invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a house or build an addition. Yet, when we look at the cost per square foot (an inaccurate measuring method), I find my work far below what we find for the fancy projects in the glossy magazines. In other words, my projects have been under $300 per square foot and more often closer to $200 per square foot. Many times they’re even lower than that. If the costs are published for the unique houses frequently seen in publications one would commonly find costs at $400 or $500 (or more) per square foot.

Therefore, to develop exciting work within the range I typically encounter, we have to become adept at focusing on the fundamentals – space, order, siting, composition and material details. The themes addressed in my most viewed blog post “10 tips to building affordable” summarize my world. This is where I believe an architect can add the most value – making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. A bit of alchemy doesn’t hurt either.


As in my residential work, I’ve had several exciting commercial projects. Besides the issues noted above, what I find most often is a disproportion of costs given over to items beyond the program (or the fun stuff).

Most of my commercial work typically revolves around adaptive reuse or at least renovating existing buildings. All projects have to address basic code upgrades, accessibility features and most notably – exits and restrooms. In some cases existing buildings have permitted limits to the degree of accessibility upgrades (a post all to its own), but if an entrance has to be modified to be accessible, fire separations or fire alarm systems are needed or new restrooms are required, the cost of those items can be quite high proportionately to the rest of the available budget.

In other words, due to the occupancy formula in the Plumbing Code, a much larger project might not require any more (or little more) plumbing fixtures in the bathroom, require the same number of stairs, the same number of entrances and exits, yet the overall project size and budget is larger which means more can be devoted to the rest of the building – the raison d’être for the project. You’re looking that up now on Google Translator – aren’t you?

Yesterday I looked up the costs for a project of mine from several years ago – an adaptive reuse of an early 20th century building transformed into a new bar located behind and owned by an adjacent, well known restaurant. The Schedule of Values wasn’t broken down into minute detail, but if I estimate the costs for modifications to create an accessible entrance, install new restrooms and other code related systems, I project that approximately 25% (if not more) of the cost was devoted to items required by code. Another 25% was devoted to structural changes to open up two tenant spaces into one large open space (steel, concrete and other good stuff) and lower a portion of the floor framing to permit the construction of an accessible entrance (ramp) from the sidewalk to the main space.

Beyond the dollars, it is an everyday occurrence to explain to property owners (or potential ones) why certain upgrades are required when the owner either doesn’t want to spend that money, didn’t intend on spending that money or doesn’t have that money. This is why our process targets these key issues at the beginning of each project, if not before the client even purchases the building. We identify the requirements dictated by regulatory agencies (fancy term for code and zoning people), estimated costs either by a cost per square foot method (not so accurate) or partnering with a contractor who is far more accurate and on occasion engaging our engineering consultants to address building system issues. One needs to count the costs if there’s not a blank check.

Many who develop small projects can be easily frustrated at the costs incurred once they’ve addressed code issues, structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing issues and perhaps throw in the roof too. They’ve little left over for the real reason they bought the building. It’s a bit like the pie analogies where a slice of pie is given to everyone else and only a small piece left to eat.

As an architect I generally wonder if there’s anything left for architecture.

I have to be careful in my designs that the architecture isn’t just coming along for the ride, it has to serve its purpose. It has to do something to make the business successful or commercial operation efficient. Good looks are not enough honey.

Despite my efforts, incorporating active systems, advanced building envelopes or rise above the building code minimums are rarely an option. Certifications or testing such as LEED, Energy Star or Passive House just don’t happen in my world yet. We need to be clever with what’s available, follow smart passive strategies and work for the best energy saving envelope we can afford.

Stretch a dollar, it’s what we do as small office practitioners. I still love it.

Next topic – scale.

photo credit – pie: IMG_0777.JPG via photopin (license)

small projects :: budgets

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