Not too long ago we met with some potential single family home clients at BUILD. Good people, a nice project, and we’d be honored to work with them on their new home. Being a savvy couple, they had done a bit of homework on the design end of their project. A friend of a friend (of theirs), who is an architect, offered to draw up some basic plans pro-bono. Free work from a design professional! Great they thought -and who wouldn’t. They allowed the pro-bono work to proceed and were now talking to some additional professionals as a means of educating themselves and getting a second opinion. Smart.

As we reviewed these pro-bono drawings it began to dawn on us that this architect hadn’t done enough research at the city; they hadn’t gathered information on wetlands, steep slope, critical areas or any other obvious site characteristics. There was little documentation of setbacks, easements or topography on the site plan. The critical data hadn’t been figured out –the critical data that dictates how the plot can be used and where things should be located. The drawings, it would seem, were at best “artistic renderings”, or bluntly, fictitious.

Next, the architect led the clients to a builder who quoted a construction budget.  The budget of course is fictitious because the design is fictitious.  Magically, the budget defies all types of reason and was quoted at 50% under even the best construction pricing we could foresee.  You can just hear the future change orders…
“Oh, we’re going to need pin-piles.  Cha-ching.”
“Oh, that’s living space? It looked like crawlspace when I priced it.  Cha-ching.”
“Oh, you wanted windows?  That wasn’t on the original (fictitious and sketchy) plans.”
“Oh, you wanted hardwood flooring?  I quoted somebody else’s (used) carpet.”
and on and on…

Fortunately, the potential clients smelled something even as they were starting to get drawn in by the comprehensive ‘optimism’ of everyone involved.

Everyone typically loses in these situations. The pro-bono architect looks unprofessional for generating a fictitious design, the initial builder option looks dubious, the clients are unpleasantly surprised with a significantly higher construction cost and the architect who provides a factual design gets to be the bearer of bad news.

As much as we hate to pick on one particular incident, this one does a thorough job of illustrating the point. Architects shouldn’t work for free*. We see it again and again; architects who work for free initiate a series of problems that are crippling our profession. So to the architects out there designing houses or similar projects for free, here’s our top 10 list of reasons to stop working for free:

There is a temptation, whether explicit or implicit, that if you’re providing free work you don’t need to provide as thorough a package as if you were being paid. But designing and building a house is a process governed by technicalities, building codes, and gravity.  A thorough set of documents and proper coordination with the building department are necessary components, whether there’s a design fee or not.

It misleads the homeowners. All they know is that a profession is working on the job –this would imply that the work is thorough and reliable. They most likely aren’t aware of the fact that steps are being skipped or that the proper research isn’t being conducted. Why would they –there’s a professional working on it.

It trains homeowners to think that architects have more influence over pricing than they do. Creating fictitious plans that fictitious pricing is then based on gives homeowners the false impression that building a home is as cheap as the architect wants it to be. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Framing costs the same amount no matter how much your architect wants it to be. The drywaller has a mortgage to pay on his house just like anybody else and his bills don’t diminish when the architect would like a project to cost less.

It’s just bad business. Ask any MBA about the business model of working for free and they’ll most likely respond with “what business model?”


It devalues the profession of architecture. Working for free suggests that you were that student back in school who sat on the couch in studio all day talking about all-nighters and how kick-ass that project is going to be that you haven’t yet started.

It’s hard to take a professional seriously when they give their time away. If our eye surgeon offered free Lasik eye surgery to us, I’m not sure we’d be too crazy about the idea. We kind of like handing over a nice big fat check to our eye surgeon. That check gives us the confidence that we’re going to get the things we need out of the deal –like depth perception.

It’s degrading. Nobody likes working for nothing.


It undermines accountability. In the event that there are errors or omissions with a set of drawings resulting in legal action, the architect is quite likely to claim that the damages cannot exceed the design fee, which in this case would be zero. Before you know it, that professional architect you knew transformed into a used car salesman complete with plaid suit.

Just because you’ve got “free time” doesn’t mean you have time to give away. A down economy is no excuse for working for free. It’s valuable time to be marketing, networking, blogging, and heck, we don’t know, maybe learning the building code.

It dishonors your other clients who paid good money for the design of their home.

There you go free-working, sitting on the couch in studio, architects. We’d love to hear your top 10 reasons to work for free. Hell, we’ll even pay you for it.

*Disclaimer: of course, the caveat here is that structured and specific pro-bono work is encouraged for things like catastrophes, the less fortunate and orphans.  But even these pro-bono services need to be delivered with the same professionalism as typical fee-based services.