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Looking to Build Spring / Summer 2013 ?
Then you should Start the Plans & Design Work no later than Jan/Feb 2013 (for larger projects), or March/April 2013 (for SMALL Projects) ! June/ July / August is the worst time to try to find a contractor for work to be done during Summer. Plan Early !

You'll need to allow TIME for the Architect to Design the Building, time to apply for a Building Permit, and you need to allow enough time for the Bidding/Pricing Process. Most people wait too long to start planning! By May, the better contractors will be booked through winter.

If you only watch ONE HOME RENOVATION TV SHOW, it should be MIKE HOLMES' "Holmes on Homes" on cable TV. Or, buy the DVDs below. Learn what the OTHER TV shows WON'T TELL or SHOW you about residential construction. Read more about HOW TO AVOID Construction Fraud at


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Table of Contents -

Define Your Project Goals

Establish A Project Budget

Why Hire an Architect

What You Don't know, will cost you

In Contracts We Trust

Do Your Homework

The Little Rehab that wasn't

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Susan Grant Portfolio

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Susan Grant, Architect

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Define Your Project Goals

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Why Hire an Architect

What You Don't know, will cost you

In Contracts We Trust

Do Your Homework

The Little Rehab that wasn't

Other Architecture Resources

Susan Grant Portfolio

Susan Grant Architect
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Arch/Design Links

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Great Buildings of the World

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Visit Susan Grant, Archt. This is my web page, where you can find out more about my professional background and view some of my work. Other work includes: State of IL Building . <-- when I was with Holabird & Root.... Be sure to come back to my page, tho'!

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In Contracts We Trust

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The Little Rehab that wasn't

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Updated for Q1 v. 2011 !!

This page is a brief attempt to provide some answers for people considering a building, construction or remodeling project for the first time and, for those who may be considering hiring a design professional.  It is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to all building, design & legal issues, but merely addresses some common questions and issues many clients have asked of me. (FAQs for all you 'Net heads.) The SG web pages are in their 16th Year Online !

It is my hope that this info may help you avoid some common & costly mistakes. I will discuss some common myths about working with an Architect (versus not working with one). It is my hope visitors to this site will gain some understanding regarding the benefits of using a licensed Architect for a building or remodeling project.

"Steps.." The Book.
Look to order it here online, soon !!

Introduction - Why Hire An Architect ??

Because you will be happier with a $170,000 house (or any dollar amount) realized with the services of an Architect, than a $170,000 house developed by a builder (or development company). It is also my opinion, that it is likely to be a much better product as well. Read on, and you will see why I know this to be true.

• How Do You Know if You are Getting What You Paid For when your Contractor gives you a price?
If you were in the market for an upscale car, and bought a new 6 passenger vehicle with a V-8 engine, 4 doors, fully loaded luxury sedan with a leather interior for $42K, you may have paid a fair market price.  If, however, you paid $42K for a 4 cylinder economy car (no A/C, w/ manual windows and plastic covered seats) THINKING you would be getting a luxury car, then it might be safe to say that not only didn't get your money's worth, but that you were duped. While the Cary Grant Movie "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948) is thought to be fiction, the subject & trials of building a house (as portrayed in this comedy) are all too real. Since building or buying a house is likely to be the largest investment most families make, it deserves serious due diligence and preparation (by the investor).

Sadly, most people devote more time to selecting a big screen TV or a car, than they do preparing for their largest investment move --building or remodeling a house. So it should be no surprise that construction related litigation, complaints against construction companies etc., have been steadily rising the last 20 years (with no indication that the pace will slow.)

Are you as familiar with construction materials and issues, as you are with other consumer goods and prices?

I have seen people research the invoice price for a car for 3 months before they make a decision to purchase. However, these same people apply no such diligence to the purchase of real estate or the cost of building or the renovation of a home (including Kitchen and Bath remodels). Builders (and Developers) know this (about consumers), and they count on making money on your lack of familiarity with building costs and your lack of technical & material/systems knowledge.


Lest you think you are immune to shoddy Construction work or shady Contractors & Developers because you are buying a "New House or Condo", read through the Blog on this topic.
Canadian Builder Mike Holmes has created an entire Construction Empire out of fixing shoddy work in existing AND NEW Construction. Complaints against Contractors (in new and existing homes) are consistently in the top 1-3 Consumer Complaints in the USA -- sometimes ahead of complaints about Cars, phone or TV offers. [source: National Assn. of Consumer Agency Administrators]

What can Property Owners do to protect their interests?

• Most Home Owners Overpay When they Work Directly with A Builder (or Developer)

It's a myth, that by working directly with a Builder (or Design/Build construction firm), you will save money versus working with an Architect when building a new home. The truth is-- for most consumers building a home-- what you don't know may cost you tens of thousands (sometimes hundreds of thousands) of dollars more than if you were to hire an Architect to serve as your advocate. For the vast majority of homeowners, you are far more likely to save money (over the total cost of the project) by using a licensed Architect than by dealing only with a builder or a design/build construction company. I have dozens of real life examples where this is true.  

Focus on the Steak, Not the Sizzle

Most Realtors, Builders/Contractors, Home Improvement SALES people will get you to focus on the SUPERFICIAL and surface items-- like the Kitchen counters /cabinets, the bathroom tile, the bathroom vanity and faucet finishes, the light fixtures, the floor and wall colors, etc. Those are the items that are the easiest to change & upgrade. Often, those are also the cheapest things to later fix or upgrade.

The EXPENSIVE, money consuming items consist mostly of the INFRASTRUCTURE ITEMS that are buried in the walls, ceilings, floors. The most important stuff are often the items you can't immediately see. Because if you put in a new shiny granite counter, but your inept plumber or HVAC Contractor has cut too much out of several floor joists --causing the floor to sag (under the extra weight of that granite), then YOUR REAL COST to fix it properly, will require removal (and probably replacement) of the granite and all the tile and cabinets in order to get to the underlying joist problem. Covering up an infrastructure problem is NEVER cheaper than addressing it properly from the onset.

The important building systems items to pay attention to are items like the structural framing system (including the condition of the existing foundation); the Heating/Cooling, Plumbing & Sewer and Electrical systems. Those are the items that one should focus on.

  • Do you have a High Performance Furnace or Water Heater, or one that barely meets the minimum Building Code requirement?

  • Are your walls, foundation and roofs properly ventilated and insulated?

  • Do you have cheap windows that barely meet the MINIMUM code requirement (for insulation ) and that have a shorter life-span ? If you buy cheap $110 windows that only last 7-12 years-- is that REALLY cheaper than buying a better performing, better insulating $165 window that will last 20-25 years? No, of course is the answer.

I've seen a lot of Real Estate "Flippers" fix up the cosmetics of a house or apartment, only to ignore (or create) problems around the structural integrity of the house, plumbing, heating and electrical systems. I've seen these (unqualified) Flippers actually CREATE problems where MOLD will start because there is no ventilation system or the insulation is improperly installed.

Why would you entrust technical (engineering) decisions to people (i.e. Realtors and House Flippers) who have literally no formal training in technical building and engineering issues? I've seen plumbers create considerable structural problems by cutting through structural floor joists --creating a situation where the floor/ceiling could literally collapse. (Not to mention all the Building code violations created by that kind of inept work.) See the blog post and links to examples of Construction Nightmares for BOTH NEW & EXISTING CONSTRUCTION.

These Flippers & Builders often put in the lowest quality systems/equipment allowed by Building Code and instead allocate the money toward the more insignificant stuff, like granite counters and fake, shiny brass door hardware.
These kind of houses tend to use the LEAST GREEN, LEAST ENERGY EFFICIENT systems / equipment.

What that means for you is, over the long run, you will actually SPEND MORE on Energy Costs, Repairs & Replacements, and will experience MORE DISCOMFORT than if you had paid the additional 5-10% on better quality infrastructure systems.

I mean, when was the last time you actually heard a Flipper, Realtor or Contractor boast that the insulation and the equipment systems in a house actually EXCEEDED the minimum set by the Building Code? Because, when you build a GREEN HOUSE or a SUSTAINABLE HOUSE, chances are you are EXCEEDING the low, minimum standards set forth by the local Building codes in exchange for long-term energy savings, a lower carbon footprint, more comfort, and lower costs to operate over the life of the systems.

GREEN, SUSTAINABLE DESIGN is NOT a widget you can buy as if it were merely a different paint color or a different brand of floor tile. Green is not a fad or a commodity. Anyone talking to you as if "Green" is this year's granite counter, should be avoided because they are not selling you safety, quality and cost savings --just hype.

Again, in short, by building greener and with better quality systems, you are actually saving money over the long-term. Many states offer TAX-REBATES and GRANTS for Building Green.

• You Do Not Have to Build a $350K to $500,000 Structure Before It Becomes Cost Effective to Hire an Architect.

With the right Architect, you can actually save 25% (and in some cases,up to 40%) on the construction cost versus buying a comparably (equipped) new home from a design/ build company or from a development company. In my upcoming book, I use actual case examples from my home state which illustrate this point. (Return here to order the book online when it becomes available.) Read how one Texas couple used an Architect to build their dream house for only $120,000 (Dwell, 10/02) and another for $145K (Dwell, 8/02).

One of the biggest construction related scams in the late 1980s and 1990s was the overpriced, low quality, leaky instant housing cache erected by dozens (if not hundreds) of (unqualified) developers nationwide. The signs of corporate greed in the Housing market were persistent and overt in the 1990s, and continue today. Overpaying and indifference to a wildly out of control construction price structure has long term destructive consequences for society and the national economy. During robust economies, many consumers mistakenly confuse their (short term) ability to over pay (for high cost durable goods & products), as being beneficial to the economy. This belief could not be more wrong. Since most construction projects--particularly homes, are financed, a rising national debt load should never be confused , in economic terms, with cash purchases and actual liquid equity. (Check this site in the upcoming weeks for articles on this and other socioeconomic, construction and planning issues.)

Only slowed slightly by recent national events, the current US housing market continues to be plagued by low-quality, disposable housing, much in the same way American consumers were plagued by low quality automobiles in the 1970s and early 80s. You should ask yourself if you want to buy one of these (housing) lemons (and needlessly sink a lot or money in repairs in to it), or if you want to be one of the consumers providing the market inertia which will yield better quality housing, at more reasonable rates. As a consumer, you have more control over value and cost than you think.

Will the overpriced builder-grade house retain its value, or will their value drop like dot com stock shares bought in early 1999? Read on, so you won't get duped into paying $375K (or more) for a $200K high maintenance, energy inefficient, low-quality structure. [Update: The Housing Bust of Fall 2008 proved my very point. Only homes that were grossly over-priced lost 25-50%. ]


Every Project's Driving Organizational Rule (something you should never lose sight of):

If you don't take the time to do it right the first time, when (and where) are you going to find the TIME and the MONEY to do it over (or have it repeatedly repaired)?

It seems so simple, yet most people (and companies) may adversely affect their building/remodeling project by insisting on an (unreasonable) accelerated project schedule, and by trying to cut corners (on materials, equipment, etc.). Often -- especially in the construction business-- you get what you pay for. Merely knowing brand names is not enough to prevent you from being scammed. General Motors makes cars that sell for $16K, and cars that sell for $60+K. The quality differences between an entry level product and the manufacturer's flagship line of goods can be considerable. The manufacturers of building materials have similarly wide ranging quality and price points. Just because you bought a name brand window, doesn't mean it's a top quality, solid performing product.

Assemble Your In-House Team
Assemble your own in-house team for the project, before you look for an Architect (or contractor). Your team's task may include: prioritizing and outlining your project goals; establishing the criteria for the selection of the architectural firm and the general contractor; and, this same team may serve as the contact/liaison between you, the architects and contractor.

Define and Outline the Purpose/Goals for Your Project

  • What is it you hope to achieve by undertaking this building/remodeling project?
  • What issues or items MUST be addressed and/or included in your project?
  • What issues or items SHOULD be addressed and/or included for your project?
  • List or outline these issues on paper before speaking with an Architect or Designer.

  • Prioritize your "Needs" and "Wants".

    Needs include those items which should be done to provide a safe dwelling/workplace; adds to personal/professional productivity; and one which allows you to function without discomfort.
    For a family of 10 --who currently has only one bathroom-- a second or third bathroom may be considered a very critical ("needed") item. "Needs" may also include (for, say, a remodeling project): repairing a leaking roof; replacing damaged or energy inefficient windows, etc.

    Wants would include: any aesthetic and/or technological items (e.g. the latest electronic entertainment devices, convenience systems -- like a whirlpool bath; a computer enabled system that controls the heating, A/C , lighting and security system etc., automatically); or any items or configurations you feel add to your productivity, comfort and happiness. Never confuse a "want" with a "need".

    Contractors (or any salesman) will try to get home owners to buy WANTS before the Home Owner has finished (paying for) NEEDs. This scenario is common and can be disastrous (for your budget, your happiness and your sanity). Focus on "Needs" first.

  • Establish a Budget for Your Project. This a a critical step that CAN NOT be cast aside nor should it be treated as if it will figure itself out later. Only you know what you have (or want) to spend on the project. Tell your Architect the amount of your budget. Don't make your Architect guess. Many people (particularly home owners) are reluctant to tell their architect that figure. Despite the Architect's experience, it does little good if the project is either over or under-designed. It only serves to create frustration , add cost, and to delay the project.

  • You Can Not Buy a New House for $20K in a major US City. You should be realistic regarding the costs of your project. This will require that you do some real homework on the issue. While an Architect can help you develop a realistic project and construction budget, there are indeed many sources for pricing construction, for (preliminary) budgeting purposes that you can obtain on your own.  Talk to friends, colleagues and neighbors (who have built or remodeled a home) about their experiences and costs. Their experiences --both good and bad-- can provide you with a wealth of information.  
    I have had more than a few consumers contact me to build 1,000-2,000 square foot additions to their $200K (2000SF) Chicago homes, with the requirement that the addition be built for $20,000. These are unrealistic expectations. If one could build fully appointed, heated and cooled 1,500 SF houses for $30,000-- the price of a mid grade car-- they could corner (and rule) the housing market.

    Do not expect something for nothing.

    If your 2000 square foot (SF) house is worth $200K, and you want to add an additional 1000 SF (50% larger, for a total of 3000 SF), then, it would stand to reason you might have to pay somewhere around $100K for the additional 1K square feet. Yet, I have have had numerous consumers request that their addition be built for $20-30K. Needless to say, they didn't get an addition built for that price-- not by anyone.

  • Re-Prioritize Your "Needs and Wants" list as it pertains to (i.e. reflects) your budget.
    After you have done this, your Architect can help you further refine and develop any other additional items or issues which affect your project, like: planning and design issues; pertinent building codes and requirements, etc.

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The more complex the project, the more likely it is that you would benefit by using a professional, licensed Architect. While you may not need an architect if you plan to replace only a few windows in your house, you generally will benefit from their experience and expertise if you plan to: do moderate to extensive remodeling (interior/exterior updating); build an addition; or are planning new construction. The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that you know enough about engineering, materials, costs and construction sequencing, that you will save more money by NOT hiring an impartial technical advocate. The point of hiring an advocate (Architect), is to make the MOST of your dollars, not to waste them. (Read examples below which illustrate how Home Owners acting alone, lose money.)


  • Contractors are Best at Erection and Construction, and NOT Design, Engineering and Planning. Architects, by training, have the experience and background to provide design and technical services which address the needs and concerns of your project.
    I wish I had a dime for every time a contractor: a) lied about their work being code compliant, or ; b) a so-called "experienced professional" contractor built something that was wrong or unsafe.

    Property owners would do well to watch the Mike Holmes TV show where he comes in after so-called experienced contractors to fix a myriad of unsafe, illegal/non- code compliant construction problems. The sad fact is, this kind of shoddy construction work is so plentiful & common, this guy could never run out of work.

  • Most people worry about the appearance of the finish materials being used in their project. In fact, one should be equally concerned about the quality of the systems & materials which are largely not seen (i.e. the Building infrastructure-- plumbing, heating, electrical, insulation etc.). Most often, it's the unseen (infrastructure) items that are the most costly to maintain, repair and replace. An Architect can help you avoid costly and timely mistakes by recommending or helping you identify and select those products, fabrication standards, and building systems which will address your short and long-term needs.

  • Architects work as an Advocate for their Clients to ensure that the contractor's/builder's work is in general compliance with the construction drawings (i.e. contract documents) for expected performance requirements.
    We can also tell you if the window your Builder is charging you $300 for is actually worth $300, or if it's really worth $80. Rarely have I seen a Builder substitute a better product than the one specified in the drawings prepared by an Architect. However, I HAVE seen builders talk Owners into substituting a $200 window (shown on the plans) for a low quality, energy inefficient $85 window, and then only offer the Owner a $25 credit (per window) in exchange. By merely changing the brand and/or model of the product, the Contractor (in this example) has pocketed an easy $85 per window (above what he ALREADY had allocated for profit on the window line item). In a good-sized house w/ 30 windows, that Contractor just pocketed a cool $2,550 without lifting a hammer.

    There may be 25 or more similar product categories in a typical an American home. Can you afford to lose $2,550 (or hundreds) in each product category? What if you only lost $1,500 per category? $1,500 X 25 = $37,500. $37.5K is the amount you over paid because you chose not to get an impartial expert opinion. What could you have done with $37.5K? Paid for a few years of college tuition for your children? Bought a new car? Funded part of your retirement?

  • How Home Owners Are Cheated Out of Tens of Thousands of Dollars -
    If a Home Owner unknowingly agrees to a series of similar substitutions for 10-20 other material line items (e.g. doors, locks, flooring, plumbing fixtures, siding, insulation, roofing, heating/cooling etc.), you can see how the Owner can lose $40,000, $50,000 or more on a single $200K project.
    A building can have hundreds -- if not thousands-- of different products. I know of several cases where it only cost a builder, say, $200,000 to build a house, but the builder/developer charged the Owners $325,000 (or more) as the final price (without ever having an engineer look at the design). I also know the development costs, including land, was significantly less than $100K+ per house. So, "location" wasn't the cause for the price discrepancy, greed was.
    The home buyers (in the above example) just paid the Builder/Developer $125,000 for the privilege of building a house (with no engineers or designers).

  • Unlike a Design/Build firm or a contractor, Architects have no Financial ties to specific brands or manufacturers (i.e. their profit margin is not tied to the cost of, say, one brand of windows versus another). This allows Architects to recommend products and systems which are likely to better address client needs, aesthetic requirements and budget.  If a contractor wants to substitute a product, it's likely --more often than not-- that the Contractor is doing so solely to increase his profit. In the state of Illinois, for example, Architects are prohibited from receiving compensation from a material supplier in return for specifying products for a particular project. (Such behavior is defined as unethical.) You can be sure that many other US States have similar legal requirements.

    As consumers, you may be aware of the price and quality difference between a Ford Escort automobile and a Lexus sedan. But, do you know the value and the differences between one water heater versus another model ? Do you know what size water heater is appropriate for a small 2 person family home versus the needs of a family with 4 baths, a laundry and a kitchen?

    Entrust technical decisions to a Builder who has a built-in incentive to make changes which only benefits his bottom line, and you may very well end up paying twice.  I know of a developer who talked some home Owners w/ 4 baths, a dishwasher, washing machine and 3 children, into a 40 gallon water heater. The Builder claimed he was saving the Owners $75. The Contractor made it seem as though he was doing the home owners a favor -- but the reality was something quite different. Five months later, the family realized the 40 gal. water heater was much too small for their lifestyle. The family did not have enough hot water to get through their morning bath routine. Instead, the family ended up paying another $600 (to a different plumber) to install another water heater and additional plumbing lines. This kind of scenario happens to a significant number of home owners who buy a spec-grade new home from a Builder.

    If this family had hired an Architect, the correct solution would likely have been provided the first time. Nearly half of my business, when I first started my firm, was comprised of assisting Property Owners in repairing and replacing inferior and inadequate products/systems in their "new" buildings, The work largely consisted of identifying and correcting work that was poorly or incorrectly done by the previous builder. It is not enough for consumers to be familiar with certain brands. You must understand the difference in the features and the models of the products under consideration for your project as well. If you don't understand the technical differences, that suggests you need to seek impartial professional help in navigating the various issues.

    Most middle-class families are likely to build maybe one new home in the adults' lifetime. Thus, any Builder is less compelled to try to win the Home Owners' loyalty as repeat clients by providing a superb product. (After all, the Builder will probably only build a new home once for this family.) The promise of referral work (from such a home owner) is not a large enough inducement in the current economic climate (certainly not since the mid 1980s) to serve as an incentive for the Builder to increase his performance. The supply of potential new home owners vastly exceeds the number of available home builders (as has been the case in most of the US the last 18 years).

    Because of varying building codes, state laws etc., brand awareness of Builders (by US consumers) tends to be local, and thus plays a less critical role when (most) home owners are establishing the criteria for buying a home. Available transportation, distance to work & shopping, access to schools, quality of nearby schools, personal safety etc., tend to be the overriding issues for first time new home buyers -- not the brand reputation of the Builder in that particular community. Builders may be less willing and able to "export" their services to communities outside a certain physical geographical area.

    Architects, on the other hand, usually do have a great deal to gain (or loose) via customer satisfaction, professional reputation, etc. A substantial amount of an Architect's (new client) work does indeed often come as a result of a referral (from a client). As Architects, our brand is also more readily portable from community to community.

  • I have never seen a beloved building, nor a Historical Landmark designed by a Contractor nor a Developer. While there may be contractors who are also licensed Architects, there are few (if any) structures built in recent decades designed by a builder that are widely beloved by the community it serves. If you care what your home/structure/space looks like and, how it serves your needs (emotionally and physically), then design & technical expertise should matter to you. Well designed structures (and interiors) generally have higher resale values. Good, stylish design can be had on any budget.

  • Architects and Builders are not Interchangeable.  Would you rely only on a paramedic if you need to be treated for a neurological disorder? Would you expect that a paralegal would give you the same level of legal expertise and assistance that a qualified attorney would provide?

    In some municipalities, General Contractors (GCs) are not required to have any construction knowledge at all. They may only be required to have a common general business license in order to offer work to the public. (The GC then turns around and subcontracts the trade work for plumbing, electrical etc. That is how these GC-come-latelys get the projects built.) Building Trade services (i.e. plumbers, electricians, masons etc.), unlike General Contractors, usually ARE required to have some kind of formal trade school training (through apprentice training program) in an accredited trade school. Most municipalities also require these trades be licensed to practice their specific trade. So, it is possible to be a General Contractor or Developer (in many municipalities throughout the USA) without ever having any training whatsoever in construction and engineering. This has resulted in a significant rise in the number of low-quality and low performing problematic structures. (It also provides a climate where unsafe structures are erected.)
    Wisely, many municipalities are learning from the problems caused by unqualified general contractors & builders, and are closing legal loopholes in building codes so as to better safeguard the public welfare. (See my forthcoming book for information which addresses this issue in much greater detail.)

  • Building Codes Set a Minimum Standard -- not a Desired Maximum for Performance and Safety.
    Depending on the specifics of the structure being designed, even meeting a "minimum building code" standard may not be an adequate solution for the specific use of the structure, its inhabitants or locale. If a Builder is constructing ONLY to code (where no Architect has been retained to design the structure), the Builder is likely providing a minimum standard of safety required-- not the maximum you --as a client and user-- may actually expect, desire, may be willing to afford, and certainly not the maximum technology available at the time.
    Never confuse safety, quality and appropriateness with something that merely "meets code".

  • Design & Construction Professionals - Before consumers undertake a building project, they should familiarize themselves, (if they aren't already) with the differences (i.e. job functions & responsibilities) between Architects, engineers, city planners, developers, contractors/builders, real estate agents, etc. Otherwise, consumers risk seeking solutions from someone who is completely ill-equipped to serve them, or from someone who has a conflict of interest. Although the aforementioned disciplines each serve the greater construction, real estate and planning industries, their roles (work and expertise) are not interchangeable.

  • Many Municipalities Require Building Plans be "STAMPED" by a Licensed Architect. The "stamping" is a means to help insure that a qualified (by education and experience) professional has developed plans which address public safety and which (generally) conform to a technical standard of care. The truth is, not unlike other health and safety regulations, professional licensure and building codes are a means to ensure public safety and well-being. When an Architect or engineer affixes her/his stamp on plans, she/he is certifying that the design (and its components) was professionally designed and that it meets the standard of care (including building code requirements) in the municipality having jurisdiction. Safety (of your family or building occupants) is another reason why you should enlist an Architect to assist you in making priorities and decisions when selecting building systems and components for your structure.

    Many building types (as designated by size, location and/or use) may only be designed by licensed Architects and Engineers in certain cities/towns. Again, check with your local authorities for the requirements in your area.

    On occasion, draftspersons have presented themselves as "Architects" to home owners (or the greater public). Sometimes, after paying thousands of dollar to a draftsperson, the Owners find out said person is not licensed (as an Architect) and thus, is unable to stamp the drawings. This renders the plans almost useless for the purposes of obtaining a building permit.
    Currently, most states allow the public to verify (via the Internet) if someone is a licensed Architect or engineer. Consumers would be well advised to verify (for themselves) if the person they are considering hiring, holds a license to practice their profession.

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Beware of Companies & Individuals Operating Illegally

  • In many states (like my home state of Illinois), it is actually illegal for a contractor to even offer Architectural design or engineering services unless they hold a license as an Architect.
    Just as lawyers and physicians must be licensed to practice, so too must Architects and Engineers be licensed.  It most states, the state government has legal jurisdiction in the administration and enforcement of this requirement.

    It is also illegal for a drafting or Computer Aided Drafting service, a builder, an interior designer or anyone else, to offer "architectural design" or "architecture services" if the principal supervising the work is not licensed as an Architect.  It is even illegal to use the word "architect" or even use "architectural" or "architecture services" on a business card if one is not licensed to practice architecture. In Illinois, like many other US states, infractions like those listed above may constitute a Class 4 felony. (Section 225 ILCS 305/23.5 of the Illinois Architecture Practice Act.)  Read more about this issue. You should report to your local building department the names of people/companies operating illegally.

  • It is not Enough to Watch a Few "This Old House" Episodes
    While a great many of the self-help TV/Video programs are informative, they really don't explain (nor have the time to explain) the breadth and depth of experience and skills Architects, Engineers and contractors bring to a design or construction project.

    The person who represents him/herself in a court of law has a fool for an attorney .

    I'm sure most of you would agree that if someone developed a few 20 minute TV shows explaining what YOU do for a living and how, it would not provide an adequate knowledge nor skill base for Joe Viewer to then go out and do what it is YOU do. A few TV shows hardly replaces years of education, apprenticeship and experience.

  • Having the right team of experienced and qualified Architects, Engineers, contractors etc., will lower the likelihood of encountering construction or performance problems later. Even if problems do arise, they're more likely to be resolved amicably, in a timely fashion, and to the satisfaction of all involved parties when, a good team of professionals is in place.

All Contractors Are Not Used Car Salesmen in Disguise

While there are a great many competent and experienced builders/ contractors, a sizable percentage of mediocre, under-qualified and inexperienced builders were able to grow and thrive as the American public's thirst for contracting services increased during the economic boom of the1990s. The robust economy in the 1990s made it possible for marginally qualified contractors to benefit from the overwhelming demand for construction services. The problem is most dramatically evident in residential construction (moreso than in commercial construction).


As a means to safeguarding against unqualified contractors/builders, the best way to find a competent Contractor (for residential and some private sector work) is by referral. Referrals may come through the Architect (you've hired), or a friend or colleague who has worked with that Contractor. Generally, architects have a good feel for which construction firms provide good, reliable, and reasonably priced work.

Be sure to get competitive bids (pricing) from at least 3 or more supplying firms. In the last decade, I have seen bids for the exact same work vary by as much as 300-400 percent. But don't let that panic you. Usually, the wildly high bids have no correlation to the fair market value. If you receive bids which seem inexplicably high, you should probably get 3 or more additional bids. And make sure you tell the bidders with the wildly high prices that you won't ever consider them for work in the future (and that your friends won't consider them either). With time and patience, you can almost always get a fair price for good quality work. You should never feel pressure to accept a bid that is excessively high. Your Architect can help guide you through the selection of a contractor and through the pricing process.

A referral for a service contractor, service company or provider, however, should not be considered a "green light" for hiring. For example, a construction firm which is very experienced and competent in designing gas stations, may not be the best firm to build a custom, single-family home. You should view (in person) a few of the construction company's completed projects, and should always ask for references. Make sure you then check the company's references. It is not enough just to ask for the references.

The lowest bid, doesn't necessarily indicate the most efficient, professional nor competent contractor either. These and other issues, should be weighed in selecting the right construction company for your project. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to blindly select a contractor out of the yellow page colored directories, or from a classified newspaper ad.

A Handshake is Not Good Enough

"He who sets the table, slices the pie".

One way to increase the likelihood of confusion, misunderstanding, disagreement and disappointment for any project, is to rely on oral agreements. This may seem obvious to many of you, but you'd be surprised at the number of disputes which arise because one party interpreted a conversation differently than the other party.

Any reputable design/architectural firm won't hesitate to provide (you with) a written agreement-- outlining the scope of included services and their respective fees. Construction contracts often have terminology that is unique to the industry (i.e. unfamiliar to the greater public). You should never sign a contract or work proposal when you don't fully understand the terminology used.

Similarly, a good contractor/builder will itemize the work to be done and their respective fees (before work is to start). If they don't (or won't) itemize costs, move on to the next contractor. Part of the service an Architect can offer, is assistance in the selection and evaluation of contractors/builders and their bids.

Be Wary of Taking the Lowest Bid

Contrary to some beliefs, the lowest bid does not necessarily indicate that you are dealing with the most honest nor efficient builder/contractor. Low bids may be an indication of a builder/contractor omitting (through error or inexperience) necessary steps, time and/or resources to complete a task or set of tasks properly.

If you receive 3-5 bids for work, and most of the bids are within the same price, yet one bid is significantly lower, this may be an indication that the low bidder has indeed made an error (in assessing the project requirements). While, contractually, the low bidder may be required to complete the work for the amount stated (in the bid)-- if such an error is made before the project has even started, why would one place confidence in the same bidder (i.e. builder/contractor) to complete the project error-free?? Such a Contractor has a motive to look for ways to cut corners (as a means to recouping his loss) on the project AT YOUR EXPENSE.

Property Owners: Do Your Homework

It is in your own best interest to do some preliminary (if not ongoing) research into products, issues & laws which may be relevant to your (type of) project. The library, bookstores and yes, even those TV shows, will provide some clues to issues you may want to consider as it pertains to your project.

Also, ask others who have done a project similar to yours, for their opinions and experiences. For example, a neighbor (with a similar house) who recently built an addition, may be a good source of information for your remodeling/addition project. In this case, they may be able to point out not only any advantages gained by the remodeling, but may also be able to point out (now that the project is done), items that they would do differently. Use this opportunity to learn from someone else's mistakes and/or gains.

As the owner, you can no sooner expect an Architect (or contractor) will assume entire responsibility for your decisions (or indecision) on a building project, than if you turned over all your financial decision making over to a financial advisor. Architects work with their clients -- not in place of their clients. You can avoid considerable confusion, cost over runs and delays, by being fully prepared and organized.


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A Word About Fees!

A Word (or two) About Architectural Fees

THIS IS THE SECTION YOU MUST READ. The size, complexity, and specific goals and needs of your project, are a few of the factors which must be considered when establishing the fee amount and payment schedule. There are a few different ways architects may charge for their services, they are:

  • Hourly Consulting - which may prove cost effective for some (smaller or less complex) projects. Also good for limited Consulting and Analysis assistance.
  • Stipulated Sum - often a fixed maximum price, as proposed by the Architect. Often used for larger, projects with repetitive features.
  • Stipulated Sum per unit - for example, unit cost by square feet, number of rooms, etc.
  • Percentage of Construction Costs - 10-15% (of the construction cost) for new construction is a common range for Architect's fees. Of course, depending on site conditions, scope of work, level of complexity, etc., that amount can be higher or lower.
  • Combination of the Above
  • Reimbursable Items - Most Architects and Engineers charge for Reimbursable Items (e.g. photocopying, faxing, messenger costs etc.). These are expenses incurred as a direct result of providing the owner/client professional services. As the client, you are usually expected to reimburse the architect /engineer for these expenses.

    You should discuss your concerns and needs about your project as it relates to fees (as a part of the programmatic issues), with your Architect.

    Not unlike other businesses (including contractors), an architectural firm's location, company size, & experience are a few of the items which will contribute to its overhead /expenses, and thus, will affect the price of services. When selecting an Architect, you should consider these issues as well. You can NOT fairly compare professional services if the scope (by time, analysis and complexity) of the services quoted is not an apples to apples comparison. Comparing the fee of a designer offering only permit-ready plans is NOT the same as a firm offering FULL-SERVICE pre-design, budget analysis, construction plans, interior design, green design and construction observation services.

    Remember, working directly w/ a contractor / builder on a new home usually won't save you money. And in many municipalities, it is a legal requirement that you work with a licensed Architect when building or remodeling a structure. (Read more about this topic in my book, "Steps".) Check with your local building & planning department for your town's requirements.

Fees for New or Remodeling Work

Existing conditions, building technologies, age and location of the structure, maintenance (or lack of), and the level of competence of the original builder are all factors that will affect every remodeling project. Such factors, in turn, affect the cost and the amount of time necessary for the Architect to properly address the needs of your project.

There is no fail-safe way for architects, engineers, nor builders to be able to forecast the existing conditions of your particular project (sight unseen). Without disassembling otherwise serviceable portions of a building, or access to accurate plans of an existing structure, architects can only make reasonable assumptions regarding existing conditions based on our experience and training. Architects & engineers do not have x-ray vision, and they can not see into walls (or underground) in complete anticipation of necessary work.
It is my opinion, no reputable (or competent) architect can provide a "fixed menu" type of fee schedule-- particularly when it comes to remodeling/rehab work.

A price for architectural services is best given after the architect has had a chance to see some of the issues involved IN PERSON (i.e. visited the site), and after discussing your project's goals and needs with you.

Most experienced Architects (and engineers) price work based on scope (of their time). Those of you looking for a professional to design a restaurant or new home for $500-$2000 are not likely to find someone competent to work with you. Architects don't provide "just plans". Among the many services Architects can provide are: analysis, advocacy, advice, site, contractor & bid analysis. Experienced Architects can make recommendations that safely save you money. Having the company that builds your project also give you cost-savings advice, is like having the fox guard the hen house.

The advice and analysis a professional Architect can provide to you can help you save $5K, $15,000 even $50,000 in a single good sized project. These kind of savings already may PAY FOR the costs of architectural fees many times over versus companies that only offer a discount drafting service or permit plans. Those Design/Build contractors that claim the design is "free" (or offers it at a fraction of working with an architecture firm), just rolls the design fee into the construction cost, and often cuts the quality of the materials they use. There are no "free lunches." There is no such thing as "free design work".

Drafting /CAD is to architecture, what typewriters are to good writing. They are only a portion of the tools needed to provide a good long-term solution. Being able to type well, is not the same thing as being a good writer. Having permit-compliant plans is not the same as having a good (or safe), or cost saving design.

A substantial portion of construction law-suits are a result of the CONTRACTOR NOT FOLLOWING THE PLANS and/or contractor error. So having good permit-plans will not guarantee you a good project.

Architecture & Engineering services are MUCH MORE than just "the drafting of plans". Professional design and engineering can also solve (and avoid) problems for the buidling owners, & occupants. Small Commercial projects may take two to four months (or more) to work out the recommendations, technical details, design, zoning, etc. (depending on the size, complexity.) Do not expect to pay $500-1500 for two to three months of a professional's time. No professional is going to spend 3 months of their time on your project for a fee of $500-1500.

How much would you expect to make for 3 months of YOUR time? On projects that may take 1, 2 or 3 months (or more) of the Architect's time, expect a pay rate that reflects the amount of time to complete the analysis, plans and recommendations.

THE TOTAL COST FOR ARCHITECTURAL FEES IS OFTEN 4 to 7% +/- OF THE ENTIRE DEVELOPMENT COST FOR AN Average Grade HOUSE. That's it. In some scenarios, the cost savings may PAY FOR THE ARCHITECTURAL FEES --often, many times over.
But you are not likely to achieve any savings if you buy a set of $1000 (permit) plans, and you definitely won't save money if you hire just a Builder, in our opinion.

Financing Building Projects & Design Fees -

Often, not only will Banks and other lending institutions make loans for the construction, but they will finance the Architect and Engineering fees. You can finance architectural & engineering fees as part of your entire construction/ building loan. Upon your project's completion, these loans get rolled into your regular mortgage. Ask your lender for more information on what options are available to you. Again, Architect's fees may only be 4-7% of the total development cost for your new construction project.

A Case Study - The Little Rehab that Wasn't

I once started (what I thought was) a little rehab project for a family, which later, turned into a much more complicated and costly project. Originally, the family had only wanted for their small basement: new drywall; a few new lights; outlets and, new tile for the floor.

When the Contractor pulled off the old drywall, we found so much termite damage, that we were surprised sections of the floor above had not fallen through!! Portions of the wood studs and joists literally crumbled like dust when touched. Similarly, there were other basic problems with the house. Paneling and other "improvements" served to conceal otherwise readily recognizable signs of decay and damage. Now, what had seemed like a $10,000 rehab, started to approach $30,000.

All of this was due to the fact that the original owners: never did preventative maintenance; used unskilled, unlicensed workers when repairs were done; and never paid any attention to the possibility of termites. Not only did we have to add the price of new studs, floor joists and flooring, but a structural engineer had to be brought in to make sure the building was safe, and to recommend the best measures to safely repair the damaged areas.

By law in most States, Contractors may not design and engineer structures and life safety systems for others (i.e. electrical, heating, plumbing, framing etc.). Mostly, contractors can only install systems and repair existing (legal) systems. Most jurisdictions have no statue of limitations on building code violations, so property owners can be fined and/or sued for code violations at anytime. The legal cost of defending a building code lawsuit or injury from unlawful work can be many times more than any fractional Architectural fee. And Insurance companies have a right not to pay claims on illegal or poorly executed work.


Other than the exterior aesthetics, most home owners do not have the technical background to critique a builder's work, anymore than they can assess the assembly of a commercial airplane & its (vital) parts. This is why it is important to hire someone with the professional and educational training with whom you can work, and ask questions of, etc.

If, during any portion of the project, you are unclear about something, you should ask those questions of your architect, and she should answer them for you and to your satisfaction.


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Final Note
The amount an architect charges, also reflects technical expertise and experience. You're not JUST paying for a few sketches. It is best to find an Architect with whom you feel you can have a comfortable, working relationship. You should feel that the firm/architect will work on your behalf in a timely manner, and address your concerns, wishes etc. But don't expect to pay $1000 for 3 months worth of work. Would you work for 3 months for $1000? You aren't buying a toaster. You must interview prospective Architects /firms to find the right fit-- professionally & financially.

Read about these topics in-depth in my soon-to-be published book. Buy the eBook excerpts online here. Check back soon to find out more.

Architecture Links - Additional Information about Architecture, Design & Construction. Excellent Resources for Students and architecture enthusiasts. Includes recommended Reading Sources on the topic of Architecture.

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S. Grant assumes no responsibility for actions taken by others for any design, remodeling or construction project resulting from information, inferred or otherwise from this page. Persons should contact a licensed design & engineering professional and should consult an attorney before undertaking any design or construction project. This page may not be reproduced/photocopied, or distributed without the written consent of the author. The Apple logo is a trademark of Apple Computer.

This page last updated 1/1/2013. An expanded issue of my Book is coming out soon!!! Stay Tuned! Copyright ©1995-2013, Susan Grant