ARCHITECT MYTH #1: Pre-contract Sketches

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

In my article YOU DON'T NEED TO HIRE AN ARCHITECT, I present a rationale for hiring an architect and explain basically what you're getting when you engage an architect. Even when someone decides to get an architect on board though, there are some misconceptions that, if not cleared up right away, can lead to frustration, disappointment, and possibly dispute down the road. Depending on where you're coming from, some of these misconceptions may sound silly, but I feel that they're all pretty understandable.

But wrong nonetheless. Hence, I present to you the first in a series of bite-sized articles on misconceptions about working with an architect -- at least in British Columbia. They will dispel myths that start before a contract is signed, even to after a building is built.

Today's misconception:

"I need the architect to sketch some ideas so that I can decide whether or not I want to hire him or whether or not to start the project."

Hiring an architect can be -- and almost always is, to some degree -- a daunting financial commitment. A fee to hire an architect could range from perhaps $10,000 on a small commercial tenant renovation $100,000 on a big, custom house to $1,000,000 on a larger mixed-use project. That's just the FEE. It doesn't include reimbursable expenses or GST, and in most cases, it doesn't include the fee for other consultants such as engineers. It's reasonable to want to know before spending or arranging for that kind of money whether or not a project is feasible, whether it's a house or a hospital.

However, you can't expect someone to do work for free - we all work so that we can put food on the table and have a roof over our heads. As humans, we have a tendency to be less engaged in a task if there's no remuneration or compensation for it (except maybe if it's a labour of love). You as the client need to be able to depend on the quality of the initial work on a project - work such as a feasibility study or a preliminary design to give some sense of the construction cost. Note clearly the term 'work'; even a preliminary sketch by an architect is actually work. Any child can sketch a doodle, but an architect's sketch combines a number of factors and constraints and is presented in a way to convey certain information to certain audiences. It's true that many - if not most - architects love to draw, sketch, paint, or express creativity visually, but they can't do that on an empty stomach with bills waiting to be paid. To ensure that the architect who helps you establish a project's feasibility has his/her head 'in the game' so to speak, you should make sure he/she's getting paid for the time spent. You could be looking at hours, days, or weeks (or months!) to do some initial studies. To this end (among other reasons), the Architectural Institute of British Columbia has mandated that an architect in BC is legally obliged to have a written contract in place before providing any service.

This doesn't mean that you have to gamble the fee for the entire project. A good architect can provide you with options for keeping to a manageable sum the cost of a feasibility study or of preliminary designs. This limits the amount you spend on a project that might not even go ahead. If things look good, you can commit to the full fee and proceed with the rest of the design process. If the project doesn't look to be workable, you've just paid a comparably small amount to be saved from what would have been a very expensive mistake.

Another possible mistake is to commit to an architect who isn't a good fit for either you or your project. It's another definitely valid argument for wanting an architect to show what (s)he can do before agreeing to lay down some serious coin. Google and Amazon reviews aren't (yet) in the picture to help you out, so how do you know if you have a pricey dud on your hands? Put him/her to the test? The previous point about human nature still applies here though: even a great architect is less likely to produce quality work if there's no compensation... unless that architect is of course providing service pro bono in which case (s)he has other, non-economic reasons for doing the work. Instead of the 'free trial' scenario, the means of qualifying the architect for competence and suitability is three-fold.


The architectural profession is governed by a cascade of legislation and bylaws that help ensure a base level of skill, training, experience, and knowledge is achieved, maintained, and kept current with evolution and advances in the profession and in the construction realm. See my article, YOU DON'T NEED TO HIRE AN ARCHITECT, for more on that.

2. Portfolio

Architects who have been working for a while will have some size of portfolio - a list of projects which you can peruse and discuss. These projects often give you a sense of the architect's capacity, strengths and weaknesses, and aptitude. Keep in mind though that individual projects may also often have their own internal challenges that mask an architect's actual potential performance.

3. You

Trust your gut. There's a good deal of communication before getting to the stage of preparing a design, so how is that going? Is the architect showing definite interest and understanding your perspective? Is the communication clear and helpful? The pre-contract stage will tell you a lot even before the architect puts pen to paper.

Next time: Battle Royale as multiple architects duke it out to win your heart. Or something like that.