The 3 Phases of Working with an Architect:
Design, Documents, and Administration

PHASE 1: DESIGN (typically represents 1/4 of the 10% architect fee)


Creating a home is a journey that necessitates a collaborative process. As with anything worthwhile, outcome is directly proportionate to effort and intention. It is a team effort that requires responsibility, participation and accountability by everyone. As your architects we lead, communicate, facilitate and coordinate that team. At Trillium we work with you to make the outcome worthwhile, rewarding and cherished. After all, a cherished home will be a well cared for home and it will live long into the future. We want to make your house into the most desirable home in your neighborhood. Follow these links to learn more.

We know that just as no two people are alike, neither are any two projects. We think it is important for you to understand the process and your part in it. The progression we take you through has some basic principles but is also flexible enough to allow for the specifics required for each individual project. A good project is often marked by three things: a clear and thorough set of plans, timely decision making, and excellent communication. The following is a basic outline of events

Initial Meeting: First we meet and present ourselves - and our work - to you. We listen to you tell us what you are looking to accomplish. This first meeting is free and it is a time to get to know each other and for each of us to decide if we are a fit for the project.

We get to know you: Once we decide to work together and have agreed on the project scope and fee we meet again. We ask you a lot of questions about the way you live and listen to the answers. We gather information about you your family, your community and your connection to the world at large. We will need to spend time getting familiar with your lifestyle and surroundings. You are an extremely important and integral part of this process. The input we get from you is vital to understanding your needs and desires. If we are renovating or adding onto an existing house, we will take pictures and measurements and gather relevant data we may need. It is very helpful at this point to see any drawings, surveys or paper work you may have regarding the construction of your existing home.

Design: We look at all the input with objectivity. We look at your surroundings with fresh eyes. We have perspective on the situation which is unique. We process all the information taking into account a long list of items. We research anything that we need to clarify. We add to the list of considerations that you have given us anything that - in our unique professional judgment - is relevant. The following are some of the many things we may consider when looking at your project:

  • The history of the house and/or site
  • Existing conditions of the house and/or site
  • Beauty, balance, appeal, proportion, light, air
  • Kinship with surrounding context
  • Functionality and livability of the plan
  • Material, mechanical, furnishing and lighting selections
  • Heating, cooling, water and air issues such as energy efficiency, health, comfort, and maintenance
  • Life cycle assessment, initial cost
  • Cost to build and cost to maintain
  • Using and/or reusing resources effectively
  • Codes, local zoning, fire safety
  • Re-sale value
  • Prioritizing your desire to 'be green' and determining if any of the rating systems or alternative-resource options will be a priority for your project

 The Design Phase is complete when we have come up with a scheme (i.e. basic plans and elevations—what your house will look like) that you feel work for you and solve your house problems.


PHASE 2: CONSTRUCTION DOCUMENTS (typically represents 1/2 of the 10% architect fee)


Creating working drawings: Once a scheme is chosen and all parties are pleased with the general design, we begin to produce Construction Documents. The complete set of documents will be a detailed instruction manual which will cover every aspect of your project. This is the most time consuming and valuable portion of the architects work. During this time we will engage in a continuous process of asking questions, researching answers, nudging walls this way and that, working out details and proportions, and finding solutions until the documents are complete. As part of this process we will produce plans suitable for bidding and town approval as well as a full set of construction documents along with specifications.

Choosing a builder: There are several choices for building your home. We will guide you in finding and choosing a builder. We will help you understand bids, schedules and building methodologies. We will raise red flags when something has been left out or a question is left unanswered.

One option is to hire a builder in the beginning of the process- someone who you trust or who has a good reputation. The builder will provide cost estimates early in the process. Some clients feel that they could easily be cheated this way, however, our experience is that this is often a great way to work. The builder becomes integral to the process providing valuable input on building methods, value engineering and is invested in a good outcome.

For houses that are going to meet high standards of health and energy efficiency, we recommend hiring a good contractor, early. We work with contractors that we know and trust as honest, highly knowledgeable and thoughtful people. These are contractors that also have 'Intentional Companies'. If you hire one of these contractors early in the process we will personally guarantee you a job very well done at a very reasonably price. A job will always go better when the team is on board from the beginning and all of the team players speak the same language and communicate openly.

Another option is to complete the construction documents and then have several builders bid on these documents. Some clients feel more comfortable with picking a builder at this point in the project. We have many builder who we would be happy to bring to the bidding table. We encourage you to bring people that you may know of as well but we require that they have references that you know or can be well vetted before hand. We have seen many jobs end very badly because a shady contractor was chosen and his references were not well checked. The team needs to be honest and work well together for a smooth and cost effective project to come to fruition.


PHASE 3: CONSTRUCTION ADMINISTRATION (typically 1/4 of the 10% architect fee)


During Construction: The Architect traditionally monitors construction as the Owners representative. Our presence helps the contractor understand that someone who knows what is going on is watching the site. Construction can be hectic. We will be your eyes ears and mouth on the job site.

We will help you make decisions and deal with any unforeseen problems that may arise.

Also - in this fast paced world, it is very unlikely that all specification will be defined at the start of construction. This means that things like lighting and plumbing fixtures are not yet chosen, tile and trim have not been finalized, exact millwork drawings are still being revised, paint and finishes are not yet chosen,etc etc. It's not easy to lop off the construction administration portion of the architects fee these days because so much is not yet decided. We will help you chose colors, details, and furniture to complete your home. We will be there for you until you are living happily in your new surroundings.

Construction Administration generally means weekly site meeting with the contractor and owner and any other subs currently active present. We are obsessive about communication. A team that communicates well ensures a great outcome. Weekly meeting keep everyone in the loop and usually get a lot of questions answered quickly for the contractor.


More Home-Building and Design Resources:


Architect's Fees:

Our process is simple. Please see below for the steps and associated fees:

  • I. We Design:  (Billed hourly or at 2% of Construction COst. If billed hourly Cost varies; Typically $7-12,000 for a significant addition, $15-30,000 for a new home)

    • We bill hourly until we find a solution that you love.

    • We do a quick square-footage assessment to predict costs.

    • We keep your budget in mind and make efforts to design towards that.

    • We bill frequently so you know how much you are spending.

    • You can quit at any time—zero commitment.

  • II. We do a Construction-Cost Estimate: (Architect per-sq.ft. estimate: FREE; OR a Professional itemized estimate: $2,000-$3,000)

    • We offer you a choice of the following estimating methods:

      • we get you a rough estimate for the cost of your job. (We update your square footage assessment of construction costs for free.)

      • or you can hire our cost estimator for a detailed estimate. Costs vary with the size of your home.

      • or we can ask a Contractor for a preliminary estimate. (Some do this for free, others charge.)

    • From this estimate we either:

      • go back to the drawing board and tweak drawings to reduce the scope of work (back to step 1, Design)

      • or we move forward to 'Getting the Job Done!'. We do the work described below and use this estimate to base the initial fee.

  • III. We Get the Job Done: (Our Fee = 10% of Construction Cost)

    • We create Construction Documents for permitting, bidding, and construction.

    • We coordinate engineers and surveyors etc to compile one comprehensive permit and construction package.

    • We help you find a contractor and analyze bids.

    • We participate in construction over-site until the completion of the job.

*Most architect's total fees fall between 8 and 15% of construction cost for all work shown above.

Do you have a job that you foresee costing less than $200,000 in Construction Costs?  We are not taking jobs with estimated construction costs of less than $200,000 at this point. We are very sorry. If you feel you have a unique circumstance (like you would like to build a 'Tiny Home') please call and ask.


More Home-Building and Design Resources:


Estimating Home-Construction Costs

Which method you choose depends on how accurate you need your estimate to be

The cost of building or remodeling a home can be difficult to accurately determine ahead of time. Changes in material costs, labor rates, and even weather conditions can each play a large and complicated role in the final cost of a project. How efficiently you communicate your wants and needs to the people who will design and build your home can also play a part in the overall cost.

If you are in the early stages of design and planning, the most you can get is a rough estimate—but this can still be a valuable number to have so that you don't waste time designing a home that doesn't match your budget.

Once you have your final construction documents and are working with a builder or remodeler, estimating can get more precise. A good contractor will offer a detailed estimate before you commit to the project, and they will give you cost updates during the various stages of the construction process.


As architects, the 3 estimating methods we offer are:

  1. Calculate ballpark per/sq.ft. estimate based on the size and type of project:
    - We do this in-house for free based on the construction costs we've tracked for recent projects designed by our architecture firm.
    - Because this method doesn't account for specific details or material choices, it can only get you a rough idea of whether or not the house you want to build will be within your budget range.

  2. Hire a cost estimator:
    - We can have our in-house estimator do a detailed cost analysis once the initial design process has provided us with a more-detailed picture of the house you want to build, or you could hire an estimator yourself.
    - This method is more reliable than the ballpark estimate, but you still need to have your final construction drawings and hire a builder before you can really know what everything will cost.

  3. Ask a builder to give an estimate:
    - You can ask one or more builders for an estimate yourself, or we can ask for an estimate from one of the builders we trust and regularly work with. Depending on the builder and the scope of the project, this could be free or there could be a charge.
    - Ultimately, the final price of a new home, addition, or renovation will be based on an agreement between you and your builder, but we (as do many architects) can work as project administrators during construction to help everything go as smoothly as possible.


More about the process and cost of designing a home:

RE-CAP: What is the architect's role in estimating construction costs?

  • We—as is the case with most architects—don't price construction costs 

  • We won't be able to tell you how much your project will actually cost

  • Your general contractor is responsible for pricing your project

  • The best we can do is give you a ballpark figure based on pricing we've seen on other jobs
    (which we give examples of in the next part of this article)


Ballpark Construction Estimating

These are the prices we would use for an 'Estimated Construction Cost' when working for a percentage-based fee

When putting together a ballpark estimate for a new home or full renovation in Fairfield County, CT (where most of our work is), we start with $300/sq.ft. as a down-and-dirty base price. It is hard to build in this region for less than that. The price can easily get higher, depending on the complexities and material choices of a particular project. Yes you can get down to $250/sq.ft. with a lot of work (on your part and ours), but if you try to get down as low as $150/sq.ft., you will be dropping out of the range of custom homes in this part of the country.

Some of our clients have found competitive bids from modular-home companies or cheapo builders, but the low prices they promise typically fall apart when you start saying things like 'but I don't want vinyl siding' or 'can I get solid core doors?' or  'but I want the house to be well insulated'. Also be aware that a high-quality and high-performance home might cost more up front, but it will be a better value in the long run.


What are you getting for your money?

These per-square-foot numbers do include all construction, from digging a hole for the foundation to handing you the new keys to a nice livable space. So that means everything from foundations and framing to interior finishes, plus the installation of all appliances and fixtures. The ballpark prices do not include site work, landscaping, significant millwork, special interior finishes, alternative energy systems (like solar or geothermal), or professional fees (architects, surveyors, engineers, etc.).


Browse our portfolio for inspiration:

Here's a general list of ballpark figures*
for various types of projects in our region:

$300 to $350/sq.ft. Minimum for new construction or gut renovation

$150/sq.ft. for significant interior renovation or exterior deep energy retrofit (more about deep energy retrofits below)

Here are some common costs* for individual features:

$25,000 - $50,000 for a new kitchen
(but kitchens can easily cost much more than this!)

$10,000 - $20,000 for a new bathroom

$65,000 - $100,000 for a basic new 2-3 car garage

$25,000 - $35,000 for a true masonry chimney or outside fire place

*Note: these numbers are just rough estimates based on our experience—only your contractor can determine the actual cost of a project


The benefits of Deep Energy Retrofits

Building a new house to be energy efficient is a no-brainer—but does upgrading an older home make financial sense?


$40,000-$60,000 is the average cost to update the envelope of a 3,000 sq.ft. ranch or a 5,000 sq.ft. colonial house (including new siding, new insulation, and a new roof—but not including new windows)

$40,000-$80,000 will get you a new window package for a 3,000 to 5,000 sq.ft. house. This means all new well-insulated, aluminum-clad, wood-frame windows. This is for a nice mid-priced, energy-efficient window.

So a true and full deep energy retrofit (DER) with super-insulated walls and energy-saving windows would likely cost between $80,000-$150,000.  Is it worth it? What is the return on investment (ROI)? There are a lot of variables involved in figuring this out, but our clients who have done DERs have saved $5,000 to $8,000 a year for houses in which they were spending twice that a year on heating and cooling. That means a 20 year payback, which seems like a long time. BUT, when we also factor in that these houses were old and run down and needed new windows, roofs, and siding anyway, the ROI time goes way, way down. If you are already remodeling your house for durability, comfort, and aesthetics, the only additional cost is for the new insulation, which accounts for about $10,000 in the houses we're taking about. So, the ROI for the actual energy upgrade (assuming you weren't going to cheap out on your new windows) is only about 3 years. Plus the house now looks great, doesn't have mold or moisture issues, smells clean and fresh, is really quiet, and has a great re-sale value.

Even if you weren't planning to strip off all of the siding or replace the roof, try thinking about the big picture: ROI isn't just about financial returns. What value do you put on comfort and piece of mind? A deep energy retrofit will give you a house that isn't drafty and cold in the winter and one that won't keep you worrying about frozen pipes on the coldest night of the year. And what value do you put on health? The flashing, air-sealing, insulation, and high-quality windows that go into a DER work together to keep dust and mold out of the air in your home.


Should I consider solar electricity?

NREL PV system cost benchmark summary (inflation adjusted), 2010–2017

NREL PV system cost benchmark summary (inflation adjusted), 2010–2017

The cost to install solar photovoltaic arrays for home electricity production has been dropping steadily in recent years, down from an average of $7/watt in 2010 to just about $3/watt in 2018 according to NREL and EnergySage. We have seen similar numbers in solar arrays we've installed on our own projects in New York and Connecticut. With a 30% solar-PV federal tax credit, solar rebates or tax incentives in many states, and low-interst energy loans, a residential solar array can actually save money on utility bills from the minute it's up and running. And solar panels have proven to be running strong even after several decades with little or no maintenance, making them a sound investment.

Even with the growing financial incentives to install solar, it's still a smart strategy to start by building a home that uses the least amount of energy possible (by super-insulating the shell of the house and using the most energy-efficient appliances and lighting). But the affordability of solar electricity allows us to now design most of our projects to be net-zero-energy homes. Even if a solar array doesn't fit into your budget now, it's a good idea to build any new home to be solar ready (by ensuring there is easy access for wiring, leaving dedicated space for solar electrical components, and planning for PV panel locations) so you can easily upgrade to solar in the future.


More Home-Building and Design Resources:

Why and How Do Architects Charge Percentage-Based Fees? 
(our most frequently asked question):


"How can architects justify a percentage-based fee? So, like, if I buy a really expensive refrigerator, my architects' fee goes up? How do they get away with that?!"

The answer to this question is multi layered and actually depends on how "high end" the job is. 

First of all, most people (unless they are quite wealthy) tend to buy their own refrigerator and have it shipped to the job site where the contractor installs it. The cost of the refrigerator is never a part of the construction cost (only the cost of labor to install it is). Therefore whether the cost of the refrigerator is high or low, it has no impact whatsoever on the architect's fee. This is true of many things like lighting fixtures, tile, paint, etc.

However some things that are more high end do change the cost of the labor on the job. For example if you buy a very specially sized refrigerator that requires unique installation and front and side panels to match the millwork, this usually makes the contractor's cost of installation go up and then the architect's fee goes up. But what does that have to do with the architect? If you buy such a special refrigerator, the architect has to plan the refrigerator's installation much more carefully, design cabinets to surround it more specifically and design the panels that go on the surface.

The same is true of many materials, such as specialty tiles. The installation is typically more involved, and the architect must include detailed tiles layouts in the construction drawings (the architect just can't write a note saying 'install tile x', the architect has to show in drawings, and sometimes specialized written specifications, just how to install that tile.)

Or sometimes, if the client would prefer to pass the job of shopping for and arranging shipping for their appliances to someone else, the architect can take on the task and have the contractor arrange for payment and shipping to the job site. In each case, this involves extra time and work for both architect and contractor. If each were getting paid by the hour, this time would factor in as a number of hours for each.

The bottom line is that almost everything that complicates a job or adds time spent for the architect adds to the fee, as it should. The only way architects make money is by billing for time spent.

The same is true of changes. A client once asked why the contractor and I kept billing for changes made in the field. After I pointed out that it was clearly part of his signed contract, (We were working with a fixed fee for this client and billing hourly for changes in the field) I explained that changes (significant ones) are often more costly to make after construction is started. Things have to be re-arranged and often re-arranged in a hurry. The scheduling of subcontractors, wiring, plumbing, HVAC, millwork, etc. is all a dance of timing. If a change comes in the middle, everybody has to stop and often undo work, delay progress, and re-schedule tasks. This means more work for everybody—primarily the architect and general contractor, who have to arrange it all.  

I often use the analogy of buying a car. Let's say you ordered a brand new car, custom, just for you, and the shop told you that you would have it in two weeks. Then, if after one week you called them and said you changed your mind—you actually do want that sunroof and the on-board GPS systems after all, this would most likely delay and definitely add to the cost of the car. It would probably end up costing you more than it would have if you had ordered it all up front because they have to go back and re-work the car already in progress.

Architects are not like interior designers—we do not get a fee on top of each purchase we make for a client. (99% of the time we don't buy anything for a client.) Contractors bill the same way architects do, it is simply harder to see because they often spread the cost out throughout the various phases of construction or deliveries of materials. Some contractors show the number separately as a 'construction management fee' and it is often about 10% of the construction cost.

Designing a house or a renovation project is extremely complicated. A lot of balls need to be kept in the air at once. It is hard work and involves a lot of concentration and worry. Good architects care deeply about the jobs they work on and make their best effort to do excellent jobs. Same goes for good contractors. We all put in a lot of time and effort.

At Trillium, we do not nickel and dime over the percentage-base fee. You may sign a contract for a $500,000 construction cost and our fee would be calculated based on that number. If through the course of construction your construction cost jumps to $567,896.23  because you decided you wanted additional millwork in the living room and another bathroom renovated, our fee will go up. But it will go up to 10% of maybe $560,000.00 we are not trying to milk you for every penny, but we did do a lot of work on that millwork package and the design of that bathroom.

Percentage based fees are the oldest, most tried and true way that architects have found to bill for their work. It is not a precise science but the way it works in its 'relative' relationship with construction cost seems to be the most fair way to bill without tracking every hour. We track our hours anyway (in house) but find that the constant analysis of hours by ourselves and clients is time consuming and like I said before- people usually find it very hard to believe that it all takes as long as it does. But it does- it really does.

We hope this helps you to understand the percentage-based fee, but please ask us questions at any time!

For more insight into how architects calculate fees, read these two articles from the blog Life of an Architect:

Architectural Fees, Part 1
Determining architectural fees are a mystery to most, and that includes architects. As a group, architects are terrible at charging for professional services...

Architectural Fees, Part 2
Today we are talking about the specifics of fee structures and how important it is that everyone have “some skin in the game”...


More Home-Building and Design Resources:

Your Overall Budget


Every homeowner is thoughtful of the budget - whether your project is a small remodel or a large second home. How much will it cost? Can you afford to do what you want to do? We are your partners in these concerns. Your financial concerns will be an integral part of the process. We make sure your resources are being handled efficiently and effectively. We will help you figure out how to get what is most important and to help you put a plan into place. We feel it is of the utmost importance, no matter how big or small the project, to start with a master plan. Whether you are only doing on a piece at a time or the whole thing it is important to have a clear path.

Your overall budget will include:

The cost of construction, and separately: the Architect’s fee (maybe 10% of construction costs), the structural engineer's fee (maybe 1-2% construction cost), a surveyor (maybe 1% construction cost),  town fees for permits (maybe 1% construction cost)

Other fees that MAY be required: any other  engineer's fees (for example a civil engineer for site drainage or a mechanical engineer for HVAC needs if needed) landscape designer, interior designer, alternative recourses consultants- like solar, geothermal or water collection- these trades may or may not be rolled into the construction fee.

If you are getting your house rated for LEED or Passive House or even a HERS score you will need to pay for the rating and certification of those things. The Provider services for a LEED home add approximately $4-6,000 to a job. Please see the various links on our Home Design and Construction Websites for more information on these rating systems.


More Home-Building and Design Resources:

Unraveling the Mystery of Architects' Fees

Financial insights from the blog 'Life of an Architect'


In these two articles, architect Bob Borson offers an easy-to-follow and very honest approach to explaining the options architects have for calculating the fees they charge to clients. Bob's informative and entertaining blog, ‘Life of an Architect’, is the architect's go-to blog for when we need to laugh, or cry, or be soothed, or remember why we do this job.

Architectural Fees, Part 1

Determining architectural fees are a mystery to most, and that includes architects. As a group, architects are terrible at charging for professional services...

Architectural Fees, Part 2

Today we are talking about the specifics of fee structures and how important it is that everyone have “some skin in the game”...