top of page
  • Catherine Holliss

How To Build In A Budget

Budgets matter.

We love to design gorgeous buildings—and we love to build. Keeping the designs strongly rooted in pragmatics means we have a high ratio of completed projects. Too many designs die on the drawing board, once they get priced out—reality can be a hard taskmaster.

One of the things that we notice at our studio is the trend of institutional budgets that produce buildings—like museums, schools, concert halls or other performance spaces—which cost so much that fundraising challenges keep them from being realized.

Budgets definitely matter.

We just completed a 300-seat concert hall for $4.3MM. This is the rounding error on similar—sized concert halls built elsewhere.

Within this budget, the concert hall has acoustics designed by the top engineering firm in the world —and did not sacrifice on finishes. Idyllwild Arts Academy hopes it will be a design icon that projects an image of the school as a world-class institution. (Watch a video about the concert hall here.)

How did we do this?

We are often asked how we predict, and then maintain, the efficient construction costs that are a hallmark of our projects. Construction is expensive. It is incredibly rare to meet a budget that does not expand during the process. This is one of the painful truths for any client.

A recent client, a successful business man, who came to us to build his project, pointed out that working with an architect whose DNA contained not just the ability to create high-design buildings but to do so with a strong sense of what things cost meant he could start with an initial cost projection that would be lower—and then allow the inevitable increase in budget to stay within an affordable margin.

In other words, he wanted to work with a studio that had the ability to create an efficient budget that is accurate so that any cost increase would also stay within reason.

Our main strategy: build in a budget.

The title of this blog post is no coincidence, as we do two key things: first, we build in the budget, as in the projected cost, from the very earliest designs we produce and, second, we make the process of Construction Observation as much about building to that budget as about supervising the construction process.


The first step is to recognize how much things cost. At our studio, Principal Architect Whitney Sander has years of experience that allow him to have a strong sense of how a given design idea might impact the bottom line—and even with this, we still like to bring in the contractor as early in the design process as possible. These are the people who will literally wield the hammer and purchase the materials. If their expertise is called on early, they will hopefully be equally engaged in projecting—and maintaining—how much things cost.


For an institutional project, this costing process might also mean bringing in a third-party pricing expert. For the William M Lowman Concert Hall, we worked with a pricing expert—as well as an acoustician—from the very first design concept. This building needed to function beautifully, sound good and be affordable for a performing arts high school that was fundraising during an economic downturn.


At Sander Architects, LLC, we have created a construction strategy that we call Hybrid Construction: part prefab, all custom™. What this means is that we use strategies from the world of prefab, such as light-gauge steel framing if appropriate, to help keep the budget—and the construction timeline—as efficient as possible.

There are many ways to build. Using the technologies available to us that help us build in(side) a budget simply makes sense. At this point, the studio has almost two decades of working with light gauge buildings and we know what the system can and cannot accomplish. It’s a technology that needs to be used in ways that leverage its strengths.


We liked what our client had to say about the DNA of the studio containing as much cost-consciousness as it does high design. We love to design. And we love to build. Those two things have to come together around a real-life budget for our projects to happen. It’s simple, if not common.

Our main take-away: build in a budget from the beginning and your building has a better chance of getting built.

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page