Recently, I received a panicked call from an owner in the middle of construction who was three months behind schedule and 60 percent over budget. He had hired a low-cost architect and now the project was in trouble. Like most owners, he thought that all architects provide the same service. After I shared some options with him, he said something I hear all too often in construction: “You get what you pay for.”

The true value that architectural services bring to a project isn’t measured by the initial fee. It lays in the experience, the intelligence and the quality that a good professional offers.

When selecting an architect, knowing what a fair price is and what you are getting for that price can be confusing. How can two architects be so different in price with one sometimes charging twice as much as the other? Cost is based on the level of service you will receive.

The American Institute of Architects has identified five services that must work together to deliver a quality and cost-efficient project. Each phase typically has a designated value as part of the whole fee. Eliminating or modifying these services from a project will reduce that fee but will also affect the quality of the project.

Here are the five services and the percent of the fee they equate to.

• Pre-design services (5 percent). This is the investigative work and programming required to understand what your business needs are and what should be built.

• Schematic design (15 percent). This includes initial concepts exploring where everything is and what the project may look like. Plans, renderings and interior sketches allow you to look at multiple options and make prudent decisions.

• Design development (30 percent). This phase locks down where everything is, what it looks like and how it will perform. Final plans, elevations, lighting and materials are selected, evaluated and checked before moving on to blueprints.

• Construction documents and specifications (30 percent). These blueprints provide information that allows a contractor to bid, permit and build the project. The quality of these documents affects the project cost, schedule and final product. Inadequate documents are the source of many construction issues.

• Construction administration (20 percent). The quality control process in construction is one of the most important phases of a project but is usually the first one owners omit in fee negotiations. This service completes the construction document process by assisting and monitoring the contractor, which ensures a smooth construction phase.

The complexities of a project determine what services are needed. The more that performance is an important element in a project, the higher services you should invest in. Health clubs have a lot of moving parts; aesthetics are important as are flow, function, air and light quality. In my opinion, the complexity of building a club justifies full services.

Architects’ fees are typically based on the level of service and the amount of time the firm anticipates spending on a project. The less time anticipated, the lower the fee. In general, charges run 6 percent to 10 percent for full services; fees under that range are usually considered budget fees. Fees may be negotiable, but the only way to really reduce fees is to reduce services. This is similar to how $19-per-month clubs must eliminate services to offer that price point.

By reducing scope, you don’t really get a better price. Instead, you usually get less service—no quality control, no refinement or advancement of your project. The owner has to fill in those gaps. The same construction dollars will still be spent, however, with less foresight and planning and without full professional guidance. Poor or inadequate plans and services are big factors in the potential for change orders, cost overruns and time delays. It will cost much more in time, money, future costs and lost opportunities than that initial savings.

The real secret and a better value is to empower your architect to find savings in the construction money. In any well- budgeted project, architects earn their fee by finding savings in a project without compromising quality.

As one of my first clients said, if you are going to spend a million dollars, let’s spend it wisely. Remember, you get what you pay for.

BIO

Rudy Fabiano, a registered architect and interior designer, is president of Fabiano Designs, an architectural firm for health clubs, wellness centers, sports clubs and spas. The company has produced more than 400 projects in the past 20 years.