Architects fees and the 'design dividend'.

McGlade House - cantilevered deck with midcentury modern aesthetic

The philosopher Arthur Koestler wrote a book called The Ghost in the Machine in 1967 which conjures up the notion that the mind is more than a cleverly arranged jumble of neurons. It may be a bit of a stretch but the supplementary question is can a building also have a soul or a spirit?  “Good design is a language, not a style”, it is the ghost in the machine. Goethe the German Shakespeare referred to architecture as ‘frozen music’, if this sounds like a load of toss do not pass Go, please move directly to the sports pages.

A client recently relayed a comment from their bank manager “why would you engage an architect they are expensive, why not go to a draughtsman instead?”  This is a reasonable question. So what do architects typically charge, do they deliver this ‘ghost in the machine’ and why would you bother engaging one?

Architects used to have a recommended fee scale but this was given the coup de grace by the ACCC. That fee scale used to put an architect’s fees for residential work somewhere between say 10-15% of the project value. Very roughly this fee split down into three semi-equal parts. 1; develop a design suitable to be approved. 2; the fine detail of the design, structural coordination, building code issues, interior design etc. 3; covers the construction phase.  In no.3 the architect ‘wears their client’s hat’ through the rough and tumble of the building contract.

I mentioned the idea of a design dividend when using architects. The first part of this relates to the 6-7 years design training architects receive which primarily teaches them how to think rather than how to draw. I recall a contributor to this column who proposed that design skills should be taught in school as a core subject as they were actually more important than either literacy or numeracy. Translating this dividend into the design of a home my expectation is that the client should be able to say about the outcome; “it’s not what I thought I was getting but I like it”.

Another dividend is a financial one. If the design is documented sufficiently (ie in stage 2 above) the project can be exposed to market competition in a tendering process. Builder’s overheads and profit would typically range widely between 12-25% and if you just throw your lot in with a single builder you are unlikely to take advantage of the market as you are not able to shop the design around. My own brief survey of projects that have been priced in a competitive process revealed a range of a whopping 25% between the top and the bottom on average.

I would like to finish was a slightly tongue in cheek thought experiment to emphasize the point about the design dividend. I suspect most architects, me included, would be happy to not receive any formal fee at all but the nearly paid the equivalent to 50% of the difference between the top and bottom price in a competitive tendering process. So by exposing your project to the scrutiny of the capitalist system you get not just the Ghost in the Machine but some hard dollar savings too. Just a thought!

Tony Trobe is director of the local practice TT Architecture. Is there a planning or design issue in Canberra you’d like to discuss? Email