Why are we talking about construction cost in studio?

In my critiques this semester we've been having conversations about construction costs and hearing things like "that will be very expensive."

I understand and appreciate talking about construction methods, difficulty of construction and the like, but in a hypothetical project with no budget, why are we talking about the budget?

Do you think I should concern myself with construction costs? I would think studio should be about the problem of the architecture, the program, the form, the structure, etc.


Mar 4, 14 11:28 am
Non Sequitur

Because in the real world, buildings cost money. Your prof/critic is simply trying to see if you understand that your design has other problems than form.

Another side to this coin... and one I've used in critiques before... if a prof/critic spends more time on other aspects which were not laid out as per the project outline (construction costs for example) if could mean that your presentation left little else to be discussed, which is bad news.

In the end, you have to learn that design is more than aesthetics and that eventually someone will pay you/invest for your ideas. While still in school, all you can hope for is to superficially grasps costs... ie. a 90m long cantilever could be feasible... but is it really that important for your design to spend a small nation's annual GDP on it?

Mar 4, 14 11:50 am

Plan A - aspire to be over budget for the material quality and the limits of design imagination

and also accommodate

Plan B -  value engineering back to a sensible reality situation.

ie. have an answer for everything to show you gave it some thought.

I don't believe archigram consulted readily with the QS on viability.

Mar 5, 14 10:35 am

Do you want to be a good architect? Then you should concern yourself with construction costs....eventually.  And there's no reason not to be serious about your studies now and have a general notion of how cost can impact a project. 

I'm not saying you have to have a full budget broken down by MasterSpec Divisions for studio, but like Non Sequitur said you should have a general idea whether a specific design move might be really expensive and whether the design move is important enough to your concept to justify paying a ton for it.  Knowing something about costs can also impact your overall design philosophy: if a slate roof cost $150,000 but asphalt that *looks* similar to slate - in color, from a distance - costs 1/3 that which will you pick? Is the real material worth fighting for, or not?  Those are questions architects have to grapple with so yes, you should concern yourself with them, or at least be aware they exist.

Mar 5, 14 11:00 am

Being a good architect, you have to think about rough cost of the project. 

Anyone can make or design something awesome and huge if given unlimited resources.

Mar 5, 14 12:17 pm

I would think studio should be about the problem of the architecture

Money? That's not a problem! *makes it rain*

Mar 5, 14 12:55 pm

I often heard while in architecture school that we should push the boundaries as this is the only environment in which we truly can.

Giant cantilevers and sheets of marble are great in study models and abstract renderings, but architecture school needs to actually prepare you for the real world. Architects are increasingly irrelevant unfortunately due to this "let someone else figure it out" approach. If architects want to truly call the shots when it comes to our built environment they have to be a lot more grounded and be able to answer questions regarding budget and schedule because this is a business at the end of the day.

Mar 5, 14 1:32 pm

Sounds like your professor might have actually spent some time in the real world, a rarity in academia. When I look back on my thesis project in particular the cost to produce it would have been the equal to the GDP of North Korea.


I can't see an incredibly detailed cost breakdown being necessary but a reasonable $/SF limit would refreshing in studio. 

Mar 5, 14 1:50 pm

Definitely an understanding of $/SF is key. Many of your clients will be developers and this is their bottom line.

Mar 5, 14 2:12 pm

Money is always the enemy of a project whether too much or too little.  Know your enemy.  

Mar 5, 14 2:39 pm

You should take whatever opportunity you can to learn about construction costs.  When your instructor says things like "that looks expensive" is there any productive discussion following that?  There should be.  Otherwise you are just getting useless hit and run criticism.

Mar 5, 14 3:28 pm

it takes a lot of people working together to get a building built.  there are no enemies.  when you start thinking of your team as enemies, your team falls apart.  that's not a good way to create architecture.

Mar 5, 14 4:28 pm

The way I learned to run a project is to shoot for what you want, then pull it back if you have to. I don't think it does any good start with low expectations. On the other hand, maybe they expect more from you, Patrick? I'm guessing you aren't a freshman.

Mar 5, 14 4:46 pm

Hey thanks for the comments everyone.

Don't get me wrong, they tend to be productive conversations and I'm glad to be having discussions about practical matters and our instructor is well-grounded.

As for the "let someone else figure it out" approach; maybe I feel like the critiques come across like "the engineer will tell you that's too expensive" when I'd rather be working with "how can we make this work and not cost more than Romney's election campaign?"

Since I often hear that students and young architects have little understanding of project cost and schedule, and I'm not getting it in class, where is a good place to learn that while still in school/not working?

Mar 7, 14 2:02 pm

You could try your local municipal building/development/planning office. They should have an inkling of average costs in your area (I know mine does). Also talking to them would be good for learning more about building and/or land use bylaws in your area. Look at it as a good networking opportunity, as you will eventually be submitting for permits; might as well start early to ground your projects in the realities of your area and having contacts within your municipality to ask questions to. 

Otherwise contact a few of the local big contracting companies. They to should be able to help with average costs and provide insight on challenges they find. 

Mar 7, 14 8:19 pm

Every decision you make in school should be focused on adding value, and if it adds value, cost should not be an issue. Considering it any further short circuits the creativity & problem solving you're trying to learn

I had an opportunity to tour the Center on Halsted in Chicago that Gensler designed, and there are a lot of things in that project that "cost a lot of money", but activated the building and added a great deal of revenue opportunity within the limited footprint that they had. They had one room that had powered floor platforms that were flat during the mornings for meeting room, one platform raised to be a stage for theatre rehearsal, then went flat for dance rehearsal, and then became tiered theater seating for movie night.

That one room cost a lot of money, but it gave them the flexibility & revenue opportunity normally only afforded by 3 separate purpose-built rooms.

Mar 7, 14 8:38 pm

Note to young architects: There are four (4) statements every senior architect can make to quickly disqualify your design proposal without having to talk about it: 1. "That design is not to code. " You will look it up and maybe find out it is OK. 2. "That design is too expensive." You will price it out and find out it is OK. 3. "That can not be engineered." You will find an engineer who can. 4. "The client will never go for it." You mention the proposal at next client meeting and if the client goes for it your boss will claim the proposal and yell at you later.

Mar 7, 14 8:51 pm

the real world is going to chew you up alive son!

Mar 7, 14 10:48 pm

Learn estimating from a contractor, and/or get this book, RS Means:

Maybe one of your professors already has this book and can make it available to students?

Mar 8, 14 11:10 am


Design a deck not to large not to fancy.  Do all of the construction documents.  Break it apart by doing a materials list  for all of the components.  Create a spread sheet  to show cost and quantities. Go on line pull down Lowes or Home Depot and  associate cost with materials.  Most everything can be figured this way.  Everything from Sono Tubes to Simpson anchors.  There will be  a few items it will be a bit more difficult to determine cost but picking up a phone and letting the fingers do the walking.  Call a concrete company and find out how much your going to be paying for a yard of concrete.  Keeping in mind they will have minimum delivery  charges if your ordering less than they would typically haul.  You should also know  the psi of concrete your ordering.

When you have all those numbers pulled together.  Figure minimum labor cost are going to be equal to the cost of materials. 

If you want you can go thru the exercise of  breaking apart all the various task:

Excavation for piers,  Steel Placement, concrete placement, back fill, rough framing, finish deck installation, finish carpentry. ect.  Then you sit down knowing the sequence, figure out in your head what  a  experienced  contractor might be able to get done in an hour.  and then figure how many hours it is going to take to get a project done.

When you have all those numbers  don't forget to toss in  Overhead and Profit. This number varies depending on contractor but your looking in the neighborhood of 10 to 15 percent.   Oh ya and the last kicker is   Sales taxes on Materials and Labor if your location requires taxes on labor.

Like I said keep your design simple and  it will not make this  such a difficult task that you give up before you are done.   Once you have done this you can move onto more complicated projects.   One good way to keep track of cost is by using the Sweets divisions as an outline for costing projects.

You will be amazed at how fast cost add up.

Mar 8, 14 11:27 am

The more $$$$ yo save the client, the more $$$$ you can stick in your pocket!!!!!

Mar 10, 14 1:55 pm

you can get quickcrete from home depot too.  don't even need to bring in a truck.

Mar 10, 14 2:22 pm

Every decision you make in school should be focused on adding value, and if it adds value, cost should not be an issue.

This largely gets at what I was going to say: in school, I think there should be less of a focus on the actual cost or specific budgeting than on the economy or value of aspects of the project. If there is something that seems expensive but is of little value to the overall design, then it likely is superfluous and ripe for comments about more than just being expensive; in all likelihood, something that draws attention to its potential cost and is not integral to the design will detract from the project.

When I was a student, the focus on the practical aspects of building increased with each semester. Budget was still never an issue, but just as with a client with unlimited (or large) resources, a good professor should question the "expense" of something that does not seem integral or of value to the design goals.

Mar 10, 14 4:01 pm

FrankLloyd Mike......agree 100% 

Mar 10, 14 4:52 pm

Is the project about architecture or building?

Just give it a time to digest the thought before you retort.

D.K. 3/10/12

Mar 10, 14 5:02 pm

It's kind of like curves. Yes, they cost more. Whether they look cool is up for debate. If they facilitate interaction, I.e. round table - it's worth something. If a curved corridor in a hospital gives the nurses' station a better view of patient rooms, the curve serves a purpose. End of story.

Mar 10, 14 8:35 pm

Dmitri, you can have one without the other, but you can't have the other one - the one we're in school for -without the other.

Mar 11, 14 6:55 am

How construction costs work: add up all materials, items, and labor and assign values to them.  That is your base costs.  Then, think about how much your client is willing to pay and amount of competition for the job and throw a number out there that you feel comfortable with.  The cost estimation is only there so that contractors know they wont loose money on a job.

Mar 11, 14 9:38 am

In other words: costs can vary wildly depending on who is paying, and where the job is.

Mar 11, 14 9:39 am

You can't produce architecture without understanding structural systems. Even as you are building a model in studio, you are probably wondering - "gee- how did I just pay $100 for basswood." I've done that...

Structural costs amount to about 25% of the cost of construction. If you select a steel system vs. a concrete system, costs may vary tremendously. Additionally, the labor available to build with that system may vary depending on the region you build in. This concept ties into sustainability. If a region is familiar with building with Reinforced concrete and you design a building with steel, you have to pay the extra expense of importing the steel and the labor to the site. You can save a lot of money, embodied energy, and time by understanding and embracing the local materials and methods of construction. Obviously, there are many more materials than just reinforced concrete and steel, but the above examples speak of an architect's responsibility to respond to site, structure, and building culture/climate. 

Mar 11, 14 10:01 am

Shoot for the stars when you're in school, if your idea is too improbable your prof should point it out and pull it back--with a discussion about why. If your discussion revolves around cost in a review, that's not because there's nothing else to talk about, it's because the critic doesn't know how to talk about ideas.

Seriously, if you don't take chances while you're in school you certainly won't when your out. You'll be confronted with code and cost when you take your comprehensive studio--which is FOR THAT PURPOSE. 

Mar 11, 14 10:08 am
vado retro

I often found the opposite of this dilemma in studio. We always had those classmates who had studied engineering or had misunderstood the meaning of Form follows Function and were trying to value engineer any design or architecture out the project. Of course, these were projects that in reality would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.

Mar 11, 14 11:36 am

As a service to the young students you should at least have a half semester project, perhaps 2nd year, that is entrenched in reality. This way most the class will understand what their careers will be like day in and day out. With that said, cost is not a real studio design critique.

Mar 11, 14 6:01 pm

Unlimited resources and no gravity ? Where's the fun in that >.> 

Mar 11, 14 11:12 pm

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