everything is expensive

As architects, the word expensive comes up in conversation…often.

It’s a word that I don’t understand and I have written about it in the past – click here. Nevertheless, I doubt that it’s a word we use often, but it is used by clients and contractors in speaking with us. Sometimes the word is used in a context with furrowed brows and red faces.

Let’s sort through this again. I just can’t help myself.

First of all, construction is expensive. I don’t find that to be an inaccurate statement. Go with it. It takes considerable resources both financial and time to construct anything. In the world of architecture and buildings intended to provide shelter, function, and have current technology included, it will cost money. Therefore, I think it’s a bit unfair to use the word loosely in that context.

Second, everyone has different values. In my practice I seek out unique solutions and creative responses to the owner’s needs and functional requirements. I do it responsibly, however my degree of accountability includes, yet endeavors to exceed mere shelter to perform their living or working activities. Perhaps some architects (for whatever reason) aim for cheap shelter – they’ve given up. I know some clients expect architects to react that way, however my solution is not going to be the cheapest, most unattractive response. Otherwise why hire me?

Perhaps that rouses some interaction.

Everyone’s take on the act of building will vary due to a different set of values. I doubt anyone would be intentionally wasteful. Yet, the term affordable is an imprecise term. Building without limits makes it impossible to make decisions. I do enjoy the challenge of finding lesser costly ways of achieving a delightful result.


If you don’t believe me read this post here.

My all-time highest viewed post (by leaps and bounds) is with respect to building affordably. Yet at some point the decision to build it or not build it becomes the threshold. In other words, there’s no way to cheapen the idea any further if it’s worth doing at all.

Architects’ ideas that are fortunate to be built ought to balance responsible use of resources while giving back more than what’s practical. I seek to include moments that provide experiences, yet are part of a functional building system. Elements that contribute to building performance or program function can also add a striking appearance. Owners may debate excluding these elements when the budget is tight. At some point eliminating certain features to bring down the cost, at least in the mind of an architect, creates an impassable situation.

In other words, build it like this or don’t build it all.

This is a difficult concept to reach agreement on with a roomful of people. I am OK with that. It does become frustrating and architects often lose the battle. Clients or contractors or whomever control the cost and are holding the pen that writes a check get the final say. I understand. We need to communicate how these components, spaces or materials are not only integral to the architectural idea, but critical in achieving code compliance, building performance or allowing the use to occur smoothly.

If one is trying to understand how the architect thinks, it seems to me that we aim for a qualitative response over the quantitative response. We would prefer to have less of it with better quality than to have more of it at a cheaper quality.


Here’s a simple analogy. When my wife and I look for restaurants, obviously we don’t go to the most expensive fancy restaurants, but we do look for a place that sells interesting quality food. We have no interest in the all-you-can-eat buffet. Not only are we unable to eat very much, we find that buffet food is average at best. We would rather not eat out at all than eat out with average food.

When you have kids, you sometimes break this rule.

What’s a rational solution? Do adequate research before deciding on a project. Calibrate your mind to the current cost of construction before settling on a budget. True, it is difficult to know how much a building will cost despite the amount of information available today. Accept that the amount you wish to spend does not necessarily equate to the amount of the project.  Include a contingency. Despite what you might think, investing in an architect earlier than later can help develop a program concurrent with a developing a budget. We generally call this Pre-Design services.

I might be accused of chasing windmills at times. It’s the architect ingrained in me. I seek to persuade people to share in my value that if it is worth doing, it is worth doing well. Unfortunately, many in our era don’t agree.

What do you think.


photo 1 credit: Clambake at WDW via photopin (license)
photo 2 credit: Breakfast Buffet at ITC Gardenia via photopin (license)
photo 3 credit: Chinese Buffet 04 via photopin (license)
photo 4 credit: Chinese Buffet 05 via photopin (license)

everything is expensive

10 thoughts on “everything is expensive

  1. In my country the quality in construction is a design-bid-build system. So the contractor usually has nothing or little to say regarding conceptual, nor detailed design. He is not allowed to change or modify the design, so an expensive/affordable discussion is unproductive.
    This way, the expensive/affordable discussion is a part of the relation architect/client.
    In my case, I usually tell the client who wants to build a house that a realistic 500 Euros/sqm will be dimension his budget so we act more on the design tasks rather on technical solutions. It is somehow understood that we will provide the most cost effective solutions. 🙂
    So the pre-design phase is a critical one, because it is the one where we set the plans, aspects, structural solutions, main building materials and so on.
    My company organizes construction bids for our clients based on our design and lists of quantities for building materials. So we know the usual prices for building materials.
    For most of the projects, the clients and constructors when agree on an offer, they can keep it in the budget. When spend more than the offer, the cause is that they usually buy more expensive finnishes as floorings, doors and windows, expensive sanitary objects and so on. So they do not perceive the ”expensive” costs as an architect fault, rather as their good choice of quality products.
    I must say we tell them we are not going to provide the most cost-effective design because it will result in a dull and ugly construction.
    Similar to the home design is the development one. Again, the pre-design phase is critical. Actually usually it is more important the piece of land than the design itself. An exceptional design often can not surpass in a cost effective manner the land faults. We are also lucky because most of the time our clients contact us before they purchased the land, usually with questions on how fit is a particular piece of land for their project. Usually we keep verify for them more plots of land for several months before we can agree to let them buy one.
    This way we are not forced to provide the cheapest solution, but the best one.
    I think that we, as architects, should do more than we do in providing valuable information to our clients, either future homeowners ar developers and investors. In my office we even made infographics describing the design and construction phases, the importance to choose a good piece of land, the construction quality system.
    An informed client is a better client. I think this is true even in the States, where clients are often clients of contractors not architects’s.
    The involvement of the contractor in the design phase I think it is a conflict of interess. He is focused on lowering the construction costs or even to choose solutions that he is more familiar with or has better chances to get a low cost on it.
    In my case, The conflict might appear if I recommend different types of building materials based on commercial interests. The law don’t allow me to do that, but many architects get commisions from building material suppliers.
    But if you, as architect, can keep your fees based on the design services and focus on the client best interest, I think it will be no problem at all.

  2. Perry Cofield says:

    Octavian’s comments fine for his country- his system worked here 20 years ago. But in N VA, few builders will bid on a project under 500k unless he is getting established, or desperate. So the architect must psych out ways to keep costs from going nuts. I operated this way for 20 plus years, with reasonable success.

  3. dwmarc2014 says:

    I read Octavian’s post on another topic. He is right: clients will often expand the budget during construction for finish upgrades. Very few clients will state a budget with complete honesty- they build in their own contingency. They don’t want the Architect bankrupting them from the get-go!

  4. ET says:

    Thank you, Lee. This is something we come across often in the SF Bay Area. Everything here is expensive. Construction costs could range from $300/SF and above, $20K-$30K per parking space (multi-family buildings), costs for sitework/landscaping, energy/green certification, plus high cost of land/real estate. One difficult part as an architect is to convince clients in the value of the design team (architects, engineers, and necessary consultants). Many clients, whether homeowners or developers, have a hard time grasping the 20-25% “soft costs” for design and permit fees. They are already grappling with the inevitably high cost of construction. We as architects are held to the “standard of care” for the protection of the public’s health, welfare, and safety. We need to be thorough and detailed in our documentation, and this is time-consuming and fee-sucking. Our hope/goal in our design process is to create quality projects in our neighborhoods. And I agree with your statement: “In other words, build it like this or don’t build it all.” Unfortunately, the owners/developers often opt for the cheapest version that meets the base function rather than pay for a design that enhances the space and the users’ experience. It’s a matter of one-sided valuation placed on the highest return on investment (higher rents/sale) vs. the highest return on the quality of life. I fear for the current state and the future of our profession. As project budgets are continually being squeezed, we are working under greater stress and constraints with more and more repeat/cookie-cutter designs.

    1. Thank you Esther for you keen insights. I don’t have many answers. I just keep working. I’m not sure you or I can overturn the system. I just want to make a mark somewhere – in my obscure hometown perhaps that showed I cared, I tried and I made a small change.

  5. @Perry
    Maybe prices are so high because it is a limited competition. If contractors are not attracted to bids under 500k maybe there is room for another type of contractors interested in small projects. The prices are an expression of the market, not of the cost levels.
    Architects should consider costs anyway, it is not important if we work for the final client or the builder.
    @ET Why is there such a gap between „cheap” and ”quality space”? Basically even a „cheap” building, if respects safety standards should cost about the same as a quality building!
    I don’t think the value of a design is limited by the costs of the hard floors. The value added by the design should be measured in more functional space, more efficient use of the space, better aesthetics, and even more cost -effective solutions, both during construction and exploitation phases.
    If the architect is just an appendix of the builder, it is hard to add value because it should be added during the concept phase, not in details. The concept is important for the final client who can see the value from other perspective.
    The concept might lower the common areas of a building and raise the rental one with 5, maybe 10% if good design. The concept might allow to build less with better results and so on. These are fine tunning of an investment that do not interest the builder, so he focus on details and material consumptions and costs. The reality is that during concept phase we really set the base for costs and finnancial efficiency.
    @DWMARC: Nice to meet you again!

    1. dwmarc2014 says:

      Octavian: I renovated homes and did a few custom houses as a solo design only firm over a 25 year period in the DC area. Also did some education projects. This after 20 plus years in commercial. Homeowners here like design-build because they are a) wealthy b) very busy. You can’t relate any of this to mass production like autos; I simply describe the facts of a local submarket. That is why unless the project is 500K+ there are few if any bidders. Agree fully you should become a developer- and wish you well.

  6. The cars manufacturers when initiating a new car design they set first the parameters: the selling price range and the market niche: letțs say a familly car under 20k. They add „optionals” like leather seats and nicer wheels for another 5-10% and better engine for another 5-10%. And they all respects industry standards (maybe except WV). They do great design most of the time, are inovative and they set the future trends.
    They do not design a car and then see what market there is for it, there is little room for Ferraris, right?
    I think in construction industry, developers, constructors and architects, all of us, we should also think in terms of final product, just like the auto industry. But we don’t! We have the fineness of an elephant in a china store.
    Rationally we should think in terms of market products. We should put everything in endevour to hit the target! We should study the market and local prices, we should search the best areas for the development, we should design and build better homes or offices for the specific market segment, we should use the proper materials for the target and we should leave room for optional upgrades, like the leather seats or clima system instead the average AC.
    In this perspective, the place of the architect is not as an undercontractor of the builder, but as a partner of the developer or a councelor of the final client (for individual homes).

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