There are three traditional methods by which an architect can charge fees to her client: the percentage fee, lump sum fee, and hourly rates. Inspired by the lean startup strategy, there’s a fourth method that’s emerging amongst younger practices: incremental tasks.
This is the 2nd in a series of five articles that will assess the benefits and disadvantages of the four fee methods. It will analyse each from the points of view of both the architect and the client, and ask how well they tie an architect’s income to the value of her labour.
An archive of the series can be accessed here.
The architectural fee is calculated as a percentage of the cost of construction works. A large project generally requires more work than a small project, hence attracts a larger fee. It benefits from an economy of scale however, so the percentage itself is smaller than for a small project.
- A $1m project might attract a 10% fee, which equates to $100,000
- A $1.5m project might attract an 8% fee, which equates to $120,000
A further defining characteristic of the percentage fee method is that it automatically adjusts during a project if the construction budget changes. If the budget goes up, so does the fee, and vice versa.
The percentage fee needs some explanation at the beginning of the client / architect relationship, however it’s simplicity makes this a relatively easy task. By keeping the client updated with fee summaries at each invoice, it is also possible to maintain transparency throughout the project. This is especially helpful whenever there’s a change in project scope: the percentage fee automatically updates to reflect the new budget, so should be communicated to the client.
From the client’s perspective, the main disadvantage of the percentage fee is its inherently unfixed nature. At the start of the project, there’s no real way of knowing for sure what the architect’s fee will total by the end.
With its inbuilt ability to adjust to changes in scope, the percentage fee is at the macro scale a fair representation of the amount of work required of the architect. This helps the client too: as it’s ultimately up to her to determine the scope of the construction works, she is empowered with some control over the architect’s fee.
At a micro scale, the percentage method makes it hard for the architect to protect her fee base. In other words, small changes to the work required of her are often done without charging the client. It seems petty to ask for an extra hour of fees in the context of a couple of years of design services, but over the course of a project these small favours can add up.
As discussed in the opening article of this series, the most significant shortcoming of the percentage method is its susceptibility to fluctuations in the construction market. It exposes the architect’s fee to the unpredictable outcome of the tender process. This can mean she suddenly loses a portion of her fee, though more often than not it will be the client who must pay extra.
Like the architectural design process itself, the percentage fee is an holistic financial model. It covers the architect’s services with a single, all-encompassing fee, thus giving the architect room to manage the process as she sees fit. If she wants to spend more time picking light fittings and less time building sketch design models, she’s free to do so. Any given part might be more or less profitable than another, but this is not as important as regarding the fee as a whole.
Without the Australian Institute of Architect‘s fee scales, it can be difficult working out how to pick the right percentage. This is particularly relevant for younger architects. Indeed, I can vividly remember a Process at Loop session a couple of years ago that descended into a mob-like protest when recent graduates vented their frustration at the profession-wide lack of guidance.
That said, I believe the percentage fee provides a younger architect with an easy, one-stop solution to determining her fee. She can use it get her practice underway, and work out the details of the actual tasks involved later. The percentage fee becomes easier to manage with experience.
The percentage fee method is best suited to traditional architectural projects with a decent construction budget, say $300,000 or higher. It is particularly appropriate for projects whose scope is poorly defined at the outset, but whose architect and client are interested in a good design outcome. This might be a renovation to a house or a restaurant fitout, where the design process is an evolving dialogue from start to finish.
Service or product
The percentage fee is fundamentally tied to the product i.e. the building. This means the architect represents herself as the facilitator or guardian of that building: she succeeds or fails based on its outcome.
- It’s elegant. The percentage fee provides the client with a simple, all-encompassing number, there’s no need to keep track of the hundreds of tasks covered by the fee. This advantage applies also to a young architect without years of experience behind her. She is able to use the percentage fee method as a one-stop solution for determining her fee.
- It’s flexible. It automatically adjusts as a project budget (and therefore scope) changes. This can be done without exposing the client / architect relationship to the tension of renegotiation.
- It can be unpredictable. The percentage fee method puts an architect at the whim of market forces well outside her control. If a builder on the tender list happens to be desperate for work and deliberately undercooks his tender just to keep his staff busy, then the architect’s fee is likewise diminished.
- It’s conflicted. To be more precise, it provides room for an unscrupulous architect to extract unethical profits. The percentage fee might incentivise the wrong architect to inflate the cost of the building so her fee is likewise inflated.
- It’s too elegant. By presenting the fee as a straight-forward, all-encompassing number, it’s very difficult to vary it by small amounts. A little bit of extra work here and there tends to be done despite not having been budgeted for. In short, the architect ends up doing lots of work for free.
- Disclaimer: these percentage rates are not recommendations, only examples.
- It goes against my values as both a professional and a human being to ever consider doing this, however as it’s a possibility that was recently raised by a potential client, I’ve included it for the sake of completeness.
- Percentage fee, author’s own image.