ARCHITECT MYTH #2: Shopping Around

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. This is the second in a series of articles that elaborates on that discussion and continues from Article #1.

Today's misconception:

"I'll get a few architects each to create a rough design and then hire the one I like best."

I can follow the logic here - it's the same reason why we go shopping. It would be silly to walk into a car dealership and buy the first car you see. That's committing tens of thousands of dollars without first investigating which of the plethora of options available is the right one for you. A typical buyer will test drive several cars at probably a few different dealerships. (S)he compares how each car handles, how much space each one has, how comfortable each one is, and so on. Hiring an architect without 'test driving' a few different ones might seem just as foolish. The solution would appear to be to ask several architects to have a go at a design.

First, let's turn the tables for a minute. Imagine if your boss gave you a task and also gave the same task to a few of your co-workers. Whoever returns the best result from the task -- does the best job of it -- gets paid that week, while the other employees given the same task don't get paid. That seems ridiculous, no? Everyone is doing work, but only one person gets paid.

Imagine if the person who got paid wasn't you. You would feel cheated. That's really not much different from telling two or more architects to work on a design and paying only one of them at the end. Take that one step further, and imagine that nobody had been told that multiple people had been given the same task. If you felt cheated before, you'd be irate in this case.

Let's go back and say that everyone had been told that multiple people were given the same task and that only the best performer would be paid. Some people would likely spend the week looking for a job elsewhere. "But Daniel, that's just healthy competition. There are lots of architectural competitions all the time," I hear you say. Yes, there are architectural competitions. Some of them are even legal. Okay, likely most of them are. In British Columbia, architects may legally enter an architectural competition only if it has been approved by the Architectural Institute of BC. "Canadian Rules for the Conduct of Architectural Competitions" has been a set of rules which ensures that those competing are treated fairly. Here's a simplified summary of the requirements set out by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for whoever is holding the competition (this person or organization is known as the "sponsor"):

  • The sponsor must hire a professional advisor and a qualified jury.

  • Competition entries must be anonymous.

  • Rules for the competition must be clear and include terms for disqualification.

  • The jury determines the winner, and the sponsor must hire the winning architect.

The competing firms enter with the understanding that they might not win and be awarded a subsequent contract. Since there's usually no compensation in an architectural competition -- and there's usually an entry fee and always the cost of presentation materials -- entrant firms are usually larger companies who can afford to spend the money on the entry and roll the cost into their operating budget. Effectively, it's a gamble of a sort but also an investment - a marketing opportunity to showcase their talent. However, for every architectural competition entry a firm makes, the firm is also doing many (dozens? hundreds?) of paid projects.

Significant expense, time, and effort goes into holding a competition. For a substantial project or a high-profile one, the cost is warranted. But if you just want a test drive, forget it. Where does that leave someone who nonetheless needs to qualify an architect? You would do it in the same way as you would when picking a car: see what others' experience has been, check the architect's track record, and research the firm's details as thoroughly as you can. To stretch the automotive analogy a bit further, you could lease the car. Depending on the project, an architect may be willing to contract for just the initial phase of a project. The architect would be paid for that work, and that helps ensure that an architect puts the appropriate effort into and pays sufficient attention to every project. If you're not satisfied with the design though, you're not committed to that same architect for the rest of the project.

Next time: bargain hunting.