ARCHITECT MYTH #3: Bargaining

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

Today's misconception:

"I'm a nice client, so the architect should be willing to cut me a deal. I'll bargain with the architect until he agrees to what I'm willing to pay."

You're probably a very nice client, and you deserve a great deal.

We all want a great deal. We want as much value as possible for as little cost as possible. Some people are bargain masters; they will find the most unbelievable deals in the least obvious places.

First, let us clarify the word 'value'. To some people, value means more merit (e.g. quality, quantity, performance, durability) for a given cost. To other people, value means the lowest cost. In this article, I use the word value to indicate the measure of merit -- independent of its cost. It's no surprise that the least expensive version of something is almost certain NOT to be the best. Often, 'less expensive' equates to 'lower quality' -- hence the connotation behind the word 'cheap'. Low cost is only one half of a bargain though -- the other half is the value you get relative to the cost. While a single, worn-out, dirty shoe is likely to cost almost nothing, it's obviously not worth anything to you.

Imagine that you need your vehicle's brakes replaced -- new brake pads, rotors, even new brake lines. Do you look for the cheapest mechanic? Do you want the cheapest components? If you do, imagine what happens if the brakes fail. Forget insurance or litigation to cope with the outcome; the point is that you're in a potentially fatal situation because you wanted to save a few dollars.

Imagine you're driving across a bridge -- let's say the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge whose longest raised bridge section is roughly 23km long. Let's say it's the opening week for the bridge, you're driving at 70 km/h, and the K-Pop is playing in the background - that's going to be 20 minutes on a structure that's holding you tens of metres or so above the ocean. You've been on the bridge for only a minute, and your passenger reminds you that the bridge was designed and built by the lowest bidders - by a discount structural engineer and a corner-cutting builder. It made the news at the outset of the project. There's no turnaround; you have to spend the next 19 minutes hoping that the structure is suitably designed to keep the traffic up in the air. You're relying on the quality of the bridge's structural design and fabrication to keep the bridge from collapsing and you from likely dying.

What if you had to pay for a surgeon to perform a complicated but life-saving heart surgery on you, would you be looking for the cheapest surgeon? Most likely, you would choose the best one whom you could possibly afford. If you could afford the best surgeon in the world, you would probably hire the best surgeon in the world. In that hypothetical situation, you would place great importance on the skill of the surgeon and less importance on the price tag. Consider a hypothetical, inexpensive surgeon. That guy's gotta eat, right? Pay his rent, pay for internet. If he's charging only a small amount for each surgery, he needs to perform more surgeries to pay his bills. That means less time for each operation. He has to rush through a surgery so that he can eat. He must rush through cutting you open, slicing around in your heart, and sewing you up again; or he starves. Remember, this is a hypothetical in which surgeons are not well-paid. They're competing on price, and you took the low bidder.

In each of these cases, the lower price invariably leads to a compromised service or product. Architectural service must be viewed with that in mind. By mandate of provincial legislation, the organization in charge of regulating the architectural profession in British Columbia has established a table of fees that architects in this province must use as a guideline for charging for their service. This schedule of fees has been determined over the course of decades to be provide the architect with enough time to provide quality service for a reasonable pay. However, why would you insist on high-quality service if the architect isn't operating on your heart or even designing the structure of the building you're in? In my article HERE, I present the main reasons why you should hire an architect. In short, three of the most important reasons are expertise, accountability, and safety. The safety and well-being of the public - and that includes you - are at stake. Inadequate fees lead to inadequate service; inadequate service can result in unsafe or unsound buildings and harm or fatality for occupants. Yes, people could die because a client insisted on saving some bucks. Investigative findings of past fatal building failures suggest that cost-savings on architectural fees were at least partly to blame in some cases.

On a less dramatic note and in a more immediate context, a building whose design and construction phases suffered inadequate architectural service may not function well regardless of what kind of buildings they are. A retail building may not create for the potential consumers an enjoyable shopping experience and cause them to buy less and to visit less frequently. A poorly-designed office building yields lower employee satisfaction and hence lower productivity. Hospitals, schools, and airports less commonly fall victim to cost-cutting of consultant fees; but their durability, efficiency, and effectiveness is unmistakably diminished when the architectural service is compromised. Most of us can think of an unlikable airport or confusing hospital.

While any of the previous example buildings affects many people at once, a house or an apartment building also affects its occupants and, arguably, more intimately and no less importantly. Your home is where you seek refuge from the stresses of your day. Perhaps the office building or warehouse where you work is uncomfortable, and the retail centre where you shopped after work was frustrating in its layout or was just plain visually arresting. You should be able to surrender yourself to your home and to enjoy the space and the place unconditionally. The importance of a great house or apartment building is immediately self-evident.

Given the significance of a great building, the logical choice could only be to trust the building's design to nobody less than an expert and to ensure that this expert is paid appropriately. That choice is your best shot at getting your best building. Compromising on the fee is in a roundabout way just compromising on yourself. You deserve the best building that you can afford, and that means finding the best architect whom you can afford -- not cheapest.