We are surprisingly cheap

When we are first approached by prospective clients, we have found that few fully understand what an architect does. Many interview draftspeople and volume builders also, and find it difficult to distinguish between the various levels of expertise and design engagement on offer. Invariably, a large part of our first discussion is devoted to explaining how our services differ from those of other building designers and why there is great value in the cost of on architect.

What follows is the last of ten articles that explore the question: why engage an architect? An archive of the series can be accessed here.

10. We are surprisingly cheap

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There is an enduring myth about architects that we are expensive, that we charge through the nose and grow fat with profit. But while it is true that architects collectively have a love of beautiful things (you shouldn’t trust a slovenly architect in the same way you wouldn’t a skinny chef), our wealth is grossly overrated. In one of life’s great ironies, we spend our careers crafting beautiful buildings for our clients, but often cannot afford them ourselves.

So let us dispel the myth.

For a typical residential project, your architect’s fees might be in the order of 10 – 15% of the cost of construction.[1] If you are spending $500,000 on your renovation, this means you’ll spend $50,000 – $75,000 on your architect. This can be put into perspective in three ways:

  1. The significant trades on a project, like carpentry or windows or joinery, also tend to be in the order of 15% of the cost of construction. On one recent project of ours, worth $550,000, the carpentry trade was $115,000 (21%), windows were $75,000 (14%) and joinery was $100,000 (18%). In other words, you spend the same amount on your architect as you do your carpenter, window fabricator and joiner.
  2. The majority of our time on your project is not charged by the hour. We charge for the project as a whole, and assume all the risk of getting the job done in a timely manner. Considering the unique nature of architectural design, this is immensely beneficial to you: our work is highly susceptible to fluctuations in time demands, yet the fee you pay us remains constant.
  3. Within the construction industry, architects are amongst the most poorly paid. The average architect’s salary on offer on Adzuna (which recently absorbed MyCareer) is $84,000.[2] For engineers and project managers it is $116,000, and construction managers $119,000. These salaries are strongly correlated to the fees charged by companies in each field. The architecture profession is collectively seeking to remedy this inequality, so you should make the most of it while it lasts.

In short, architects charge less than our similarly (or lesser) qualified counterparts in other fields within the construction industry. We assume all the risk of fluctuations in project-related demands on our time. And ultimately, our fee is equivalent to a single trade during construction.

But what does our fee buy you?

Our fee covers our involvement from the very first visit to your empty (or unrenovated) site to the very last visit to your finished house. We drive your project through each of the seven stages of the architectural process, and guide you every step of the way in what will surely be one of the most substantial commitments you’ll ever undertake.

It is no coincidence that most Grand Designs projects in which an architect is not involved encounter some sort of calamity. To quote a recent Australian Institute of Architects campaign, you wouldn’t ask a hairdresser about heart surgery, so when it comes to renovating ask an architect. Renovating might not be quite as life-threatening as heart surgery, but it comes close. It also takes much longer and involves many more opportunities for disaster. You would be either very brave or very foolish to tackle this task without an expert in construction on your side.

Thus a critical element of our role is supporting you throughout your project, and protecting your interests against both the unintentional and malicious intent of overworked town planners, disgruntled neighbours and inattentive builders.

Most of all, by engaging an architect you engage someone who will love your project as if it were one of their own children. This is perhaps our greatest weakness: we are reliably more in love with your project than even you are. Howard Roark, the architect protagonist in Ayn Rand’s polemical The Fountainhead, famously forfeits his entire fee to rebuild a wing of a house with which he’s not perfectly happy. Like the rest of the novel this is an extreme caricature, but it is nevertheless an accurate portrayal of our general intent. We can’t help but dedicate ourselves tirelessly to the job of perfecting our babies.

With the many dangers inherent in construction, and the dedication we bring to your project, the real question is: how can you afford not to engage an architect?


  1. This range will vary up and down depending on the size and complexity of your project, and the reputation, workload and office structure of your architect. It should not be relied upon as any indication of a specific architectural fee.
  2. Figures obtained on 28th October, 2014 by searching Australia-wide for advertised jobs in the construction industry within the nominated fields.

Image source:

  1. Money, author’s own image.

2 thoughts on “We are surprisingly cheap

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  1. Can you please mail this to Rebecca Judd. The women who probably wouldn’t think twice about spending $2000+ on a pair of shoes has the nerve to rant to her thousands of sheeple followers how expensive architects are in Australia compared to the one she engaged from Bali…who consequently failed to document her house to meet Australian Building Code.

    1. Will do. For those who thought this was one of those internet rumours unfounded in fact, I found this entry about her (cheap) Balinese architect and (expensive) Australian architect on Rebecca Judd’s blog.

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