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The Three-Legged Stool of Architecture

photo by Neil Cummings:

As the sales adage goes:


One of the most basic dynamics to understand when you approach an architectural project is what we call the “three-legged stool”. Every construction project is like a stool with three legs: scope, quality, and cost. If one of those three legs gives out, the project topples off balance.

“If a client tries to tightly control all three ‘legs’ without compromise, they will usually find themselves in an impossible situation.”

At any point in the collaborative design process, we allow our clients to determine any two (2) of the three legs. We the architects have to adjust the third remaining leg accordingly so that the project remains viable. If a client tries to mandate all three 'legs' without flexibility, they will usually find themselves in an impossible situation.

The Legs of the Stool:


The scope of the project means size or quantity: how big, how many, how much. The most common way to quantify overall project size is in square feet (commonly abbreviated SF, sf, or sq. ft.). For example, a 100,000 SF office building, or a 2,000 SF single-family residence.

Note: an important distinction to be made when comparing project sizes is whether the project is new ground-up construction, a renovation, or a tenant fit-out in shell space.


The quality of construction can be characterized a number of ways (e.g. economical vs. luxury, utilitarian vs. high-design, bare-bones efficient vs. spacious, plastic laminate vs. granite, etc. etc.). One common way to quantify the quality of a project is in cost per square foot (commonly abbreviated $/SF).

Note: while cost/SF is a good metric to compare the quality of one project to another, it is critical to take into consideration inflation, market fluctuations, and regional pricing differences that may also affect the cost. And make sure to confirm whether a project cost/SF includes site costs (infrastructure, earthwork, parking, etc); otherwise you might not be comparing apples to apples.


Project costs include the cost of construction (which is a combination of subcontractor bids, contingencies, and overhead items), plus soft costs (like permits and design team fees) and an owner's direct purchase costs (like furniture, signs, or any scope not included in the general contractor's work). Cost is determined by the scope of the project and the quality of the project, but there are also sometimes other factors. For example, if the project needs expedited delivery for fast completion it may cost more. Cost is also affected by who are the players involved in a project – different design and construction professionals may charge different rates for their work.

All these factors are mutually intertwined, and a change in one 'leg' necessitates a change in one or both of the others. Part of our job as architects is to manage your project so that none of these “legs” tip the project off balance.

How It Can Play Out

(Take the numbers below with a grain of salt. For illustration purposes only.)

  • If you tell us the scope and quality of construction you are looking for, we tell you how much it will likely cost.

CLIENT: "I want a 3,500 SF dental office, and make it the nicest one in town."


CLIENT: "Also, my budget is $500,000."

ARCHITECT: "If it's ground-up construction, that size building is going to cost you well over $1M. But if you can find a tenant space to move into, you might be within striking distance."

  • If you tell us your maximum cost and the scope of facilities you need, we will tell you the quality of construction you can expect.

CLIENT: "Our Texas office needs to build a 25,000 SF office building, but we're only authorized to spend $5M on the project."

ARCHITECT: "We'd love to help you with that."

CLIENT: "Can we get the luxury model for that price?"

ARCHITECT: "For that size and budget, it's going to have to be an economical design."

  • If you tell us the quality you expect, and your maximum cost for the project, we will tell you the size (or scope) of project you can build.

CLIENT: "Our parish is going to build a Romanesque Revival church with everything built traditional and authentic. Our fundraising consultant says we can raise $8M for the project.

ARCHITECT: "Sounds amazing."

CLIENT: "Do you think we can fit 1,800 seats in it?"

ARCHITECT: "If you're fixed on that quality of construction and total cost, then you probably need to think about a church half that size."

A Final Word

This dance of negotiation and collaboration always generates an improved final product. It's what we do day-in and day-out. If you'd like to know more just give us a shout.



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