Factors to Consider in Project Budgets and Proposals

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living and I reply that Im an architect, they almost always respond So, you must like really like drawing houses then. I usually go on to briefly explain that drawing houses is the one thing I havent spent a lot of time doing over the course of my career. Although Im a licensed architect and like all architects tend to wear a lot of hats, I currently spend most of my time developing budgets and drafting proposals for potential project opportunities, rather than designing and drafting the documents for new buildings – houses, or otherwise.

Completing these budgeting and proposing tasks used to be a pretty arduous process, one that wasnt very consistent from opportunity to opportunity, and one that usually included a fair amount of guesswork such as picking pricing numbers out of the air and evaluating whether they felt right.

After going through enough of these at ARC weve since developed a more systematic process, and as a result now spend a lot less time agonizing over proposals for potential projects and more time on other (hopefully billable) work.


Most people probably use some kind of spreadsheet or software for cost / fee estimation. Depending on the scope of the project it may be as simple as assigning costs per square foot and multiplying those by the project size, or as complex as assessing manpower days / hours and multiplying those by the durations for each type of activity in both the field and office while factoring in contingency and profit.

Weve developed a worksheet that includes project data, project classification, risk factors, rates, expenses, resource allocation and consultant costs. All of these in turn tie into a budgeting page. Formulas are already built-in but there are a lot of options for making opportunity specific decisions on a case-by-case basis. If utilized correctly it allows for a lot of information to be entered and factored into the fee in a relatively short period of time.

As a side benefit Ive found that going through the process of developing the budget helps me to better manage those hours when the opportunity becomes a project. As long as I originally allocated the proper amounts of time (usually by verifying projected timeframes with the appropriate staff member) publishing those hour values as targets makes it more likely that well actually hit our budget numbers later.


Most people also probably use some kind of proposal template document. As weve developed a spreadsheet to assist in budgeting weve also created a number of proposal examples that we use as a starting point when trying to generate something, depending on the type of project being quoted.

These different proposal types all share similar elements. All include sections on project and client information, summary of work, definition of scope, identification of Area of Interest / Items of Interest / Level of Development, project approach, assumptions, exclusions, deliverables, schedule, compensation, terms and conditions, and reference exhibits.

Being architects means were visual people, plus as a picture can be worth a 1000 words its often easier to show a graphic of something rather than to try and describe it in words. Therefore, we often include a lot of images (both as reference exhibits to explain the Scope of Work Area of Interest as well as examples to help explain Level of Development, Rate Tables, and the like.

Even with all of our effort to make the budgeting and proposing process a more systematic endeavor, there will always remain an element of subjectivity on each job we quote. That allows us to factor in some intangible things like client relationship building, competitive bid environments, and current workload. There will always be at least a little art to go along with the science of going after a job.

About the Author

Mick Cunningham, RA

Mick Cunningham, RA... is a California licensed architect with 30 years of work experience in existing conditions documentation, building code analysis, construction document preparation, specification editing, interdisciplinary document coordination, quality assurance review, plan check agency processing, construction contract administration and project closeout on a variety of project types including healthcare, educational, hospitality, commercial, institutional, industrial and residential. Since 2005 he has been with Irvine, California based, Architectural Resource Consultants (ARC), www.arc-corporate.com , a firm that specializes in documenting existing building conditions. In 2012 he joined the U.S. Institute of Building Documentation (USIBD), www.usibd.org . The USIBD is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to all stakeholders with an interest in building documentation.
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