The act of design is an intangible concept that eludes most people. They might know good design when they see it, when they get something they can lay their hands on or walk through. But they have a hard time grasping the intellectual work that goes into making something as complex as a house. Unfortunately, that gap creates a catch-22 for architects. Part logical, part magical, a good house looks inevitable, like the obvious fit for a client and site, and so people underestimate the effort required to design and build it. And until they live in a house made for them, they can't fully appreciate how it will enhance their lives. Even veteran architects struggle to explain the dynamics of success. “Good architecture, in the end, is greater than the models and drawings,” says architect David Salmela, Duluth, Minn. “We don't know the secret to making good architecture; it surprises us.”

  • “Value” house inspired by the Push-Pull House by David Jameson, David Jameson Architect.

    Credit: Hadley Hooper

    “Value” house inspired by the Push-Pull House by David Jameson, David Jameson Architect.
That being the case, homeowners could be forgiven for feeling a bit squirrelly about hiring an architect. At a time when modifiable stock plans are a mouse click away, spending countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars in design fees for personalized architecture is a risk, particularly so for people of modest means. But to put things into perspective, it's not so different from hiring a financial planner, Salmela says: “Yes, architecture is hard, but everything is hard. It's hard to give a financial planner $50,000 and tell him to make it grow when you're watching the stock market go up and down. You have to do your research on whom to trust.”

The problem is that when it comes to design services, most people don't know what they're shopping for. Programs such as The Learning Channel's Trading Spaces and HGTV's Extreme Homes have raised the public's awareness that design matters. But because the popular media focuses more on cosmetic fixes than on space planning, it does a poor job of showing people how and why design works. Left to their own devices, homeowners will compare real estate prices or square footage costs.

“You hear stories about how architects are valued [in other countries],” says Richard Williams, AIA, Richard Williams Architects, Washington, D.C. “I'm afraid here we're seen as a kind of handmaiden to the construction industry. We have to justify the value of what we do.” A polished portfolio helps potential clients “get” what architects do. But it often takes more than that to close six- and seven-figure deals. Many architects are sharpening up their sales pitch by spelling out the value they bring to residential design. Some are also taking a second look at their services, this time with an entrepreneurial eye. A 15 percent design fee makes sense to people building a $1 million project, but it shocks those who want a $300,000 house. So an increasing number of architects are focusing their efforts to capture a broader share of the market without sacrificing precious profits.

design tutorial

Fortunately, the notion that a smaller, smarter, higher-quality house is better than a big mediocre one is starting to take hold across America. Clever economy is sound design, pure and simple, and it's one of the best arguments for hiring an architect. (This might be a good time for Super Size Me 2, written and directed by an architect.) Most clients will buy into the idea that they can get jewel-like spaces that are tailored to fit them, and that they can afford the design fees because they haven't built an enormous house that isn't well thought-out. “At the end of the day we can usually provide a great project in a small footprint for the volume, and it puts us in the mainstream of what was always good work,” says Williams, whose fees range from 15 to 18 percent of hard costs. “It's a way of getting back to a tradition we've lost as a culture. We talk about this at great length in our interviews, and it's a matter of negotiating a process that most people see as being unnecessarily expensive.”

The Los Angeles architecture firm Fung + Blatt also spends a great deal of time helping clients think outside the box. Instead of reaching for square-foot prescriptions, Alice Fung and Michael Blatt look for ways to double up on room functions and create vistas that make a house feel expansive. And they can keep costs in check by specing architecturally expressive materials that are easy to install but that aren't in the vocabulary of most builders. The 1,650-square-foot house they built for themselves and their two daughters in the hilly Mount Washington section of Los Angeles has shown their middle-class community that site-specific design improves everyday life. Neighbors often request by-the-hour consulting sessions. “We give broad-stroke ideas so they know there are possibilities beyond the most obvious,” says Alice Fung. “We have an incentive to take on that kind of work as a way of improving the fabric of the neighborhood.”

Fung and Blatt make sure clients understand they're not just pulling the design out of a hat. And although each design is unique to the site, the owners, and the program, design fees account for less than 50 percent of their work; the rest is figuring out ways to execute it. The architects explain their services from sketches through construction checkups, giving specific examples of what they provide at each phase. “When clients understand the amount of work that's involved, they realize the money they spend on our fee is well placed,” Fung says.

Indeed, Ed Hord, FAIA, chair of the AIA's housing committee and a partner at Hord Coplan Masht, in Baltimore, Md., points out that in addition to getting an artful design that will live well and appreciate over time, hiring an architect is a way for clients to safeguard their investment. “People pay a lot of money for insurance over time and don't think about it,” Hord says. “If an architect is doing his job, clients will save money by having a professional who looks out for their interests.” Although it's possible to get a house built from basic drawings, a set of detailed specs is an insurance policy against confusion and even contractor fraud. With those blueprints in hand, clients can be sure they're getting quality materials, and they can compare apples to apples when the bids come in.

architecture a la carte

Lots of clients are already converts to this way of thinking. But other obstacles get in the way. Many people are highly sophisticated aesthetically but can't afford to pay for full services. Intellectually, those are often the best clients, and even extremely high-end firms accept such projects from time to time. At the other end of the spectrum, wealthy clients may bring a different sort of baggage. Often they're instinctively distrustful and expect to be taken advantage of financially. Both types of client fear losing control over the budget and the process. That's why John Connell, AIA, Warren, Vt., who is the founder of Yestermorrow, a design/build school, offers buy-as-you-go services. He says it helps clients economize if they need to, while taking the edge off of the uncertainty.

Connell shows clients the AIA-approved schedule of services, giving them the option of doing some of the legwork themselves. He charges a flat fee for the schematic design and an hourly rate thereafter. “I understand why a lot of people don't want to pay for construction supervision or certain other aspects of full design service,” he says. “So I explain everything that can go wrong—and right. If they choose to omit some part of my services, I explain the precautions we should take so they can navigate without me. Basically, it's all about education.”

The biggest problem with a la carte fees is that people usually start to economize at the wrong time—during construction observation. “When things start to go wrong, they're embarrassed to see what a mess they've allowed it to become,” Connell says, “and so they don't call until a lot of damage is done.” To guard against such chaos, he charges $150 per hour for design development and construction documentation, with the agreement that he will make periodic site visits on his own schedule at no extra charge. If the clients request additional meetings during construction, they pay a reduced hourly fee of $100 per hour. “I'm making sure that all the work I put into this design will be followed through on during construction,” Connell says. “Otherwise, clients will inadvertently compromise the project's quality.”

It's not hard to convince people that houses are most successful when they're designed down to the doorknobs. But if a homeowner has to choose, what is the greatest value architects provide? “I think it resides in the most fundamental moves—how we understand the landscape in terms of siting, and figuring out the program and the massing of a house,” Williams says. “Those things can achieve 75 percent of the real value of what we bring. The quality of our work doesn't hinge on every single detail, although it's certainly reinforced by that.” He adds, “It's rare that we've simply done the front-end work and then walked away. In the couple of instances it's happened, the people have still gotten a great project, and they usually come back later to tell us how much they appreciated what we did do. You could wrestle with that as the basis for a practice.”