Guide to Architectural Proposals

Win More Work: Write Great Proposals.

Architectural proposals are the way you sell your firm. A well written proposal will pay for itself many times over. This is your chance to impress and show why clients should be excited to work with you.

Yet, we consistently see so many bad proposals. Proposals that are a mess and hard to understand. Proposals that are missing things your clients asked for. Proposals that look the same as every other proposal submitted. Fix those amateur mistakes to bring in those clients who appreciate you.

Table of Contents

  1. Letter Proposals
  2. Request for Proposal
  3. Architect’s Qualification Statement
  4. Big Picture Questions
  5. 80/20 Approach to Fees
  6. Hybrid Proposal Fees

Letter Proposals

A letter proposal is simply a letter to the client – like an architecture cover letter and resume. These proposals are usually the result of meetings with existing clients. Often there is no competition to these proposal letters. The client already likes your work – they just want to know how you would go about solving their problem. An architectural letter proposal doesn’t contain any designs or contracts – those come after the client has decided to move ahead. A letter proposal is mainly to communicate to the client your basic understanding of a project and the way you would go about completing the scope of work. A standard architectural letter proposal should contain the following:

  • Identifiers for each party,
  • the project location,
  • a brief description of the project,
  • a basic scope of services to be performed by you,
  • a proposed compensation structure, and
  • actions for the client to take if they elect to move forward with you.

If a client accepts your letter proposal, you would move forward to the next step using either an old-fashioned handshake, a Letter of Intent, a Letter of Agreement, an Architect-Prepared Contract, or AIA Contract Documents. Each of these provide varying levels of legal protection for you, with a handshake providing no legal protection at all and Architect-Prepared Contracts or AIA Contract Documents providing full legal protection. What you use is up to you and depends on your level of comfort with the client, however we advise avoiding using a handshake.

Request for Proposal

A request for proposal (RFP) is a more formal and complicated process than architectural letter proposals. The RFP will detail the exact specifications for submitting an architectural proposal and each client will have different requirements. With RFPs you can expect more competition and you will have to list your qualifications. You will need to focus more on the marketing side than with letter proposals to sell yourself to the client. Clients can get 30 or more responses to an RFP, so typically there are several steps of a proposal competition to narrow down the candidates.

  1. Prequalification Process

    If a client anticipates many proposals, they may include a prequalification process to be eligible to submit a proposal. This can include things like licensing status, experience on similar projects, or not being included on the "Unacceptable Risk Determination" list by the Department of HUD.

  2.  Letter of Interest or Architect’s Qualification Statement

    A client could then ask for a Letter of Interest or a Statement of Qualifications. Either of these are your opportunity to sell your team to the client. This is your firm’s cover letter and resume. You would typically include basic terms and conditions in either of these.

  3. Technical Proposal

    At this point you could be asked for a technical proposal. This is a detailed description of how you intend to go about completing the required work, known as your technical approach. The client could also request your pricing at this step. Typically, if pricing is requested at this point, they will request it be submitted in a separate envelope – the pricing is usually scored separately from the rest of the proposal.

  4. Shortlist Presentation

    As a final step in the process, clients could ask for a Shortlist Presentation. At this point, you would typically be competing against two to four other firms. You would be asked to present your proposal to the client – your team, your qualifications, and your technical approach. This could sometimes include your pricing documentation.

At each of these steps, the clients will be removing firms from their list and a final selection will be made at the end of the proposal competition. The steps included will depend on the client and what they request in the RFP.

Every proposal will look different due to various client requests, but they should all contain similar components. Keeping track of winning proposals will give you good templates for quickly creating winning proposals in the future.

Architect’s Qualification Statement

One of the most important parts of your architectural proposal: this statement contains standard information that could assist clients in selecting an architect. A standard Architects’ Qualification Statement should contain:

  1. Architectural Firm’s Information and Qualifications

    This is kind of like your firm’s resume. List the employees that will be a part of this project and their professional history. Give some stats about your firm – key personnel, total number of staff, number of registered architects, honors and awards, and your professional and civic involvement.

  2. Related Professional Services

    Go through and list all the consultants you will need to work with on this project, including structural, mechanical, electrical, interior design, and other consultants.

  3. Work Samples with Description

    This would typically include details about previous work examples, like the owner of the project, the size and cost of the project, and a brief description. In this section, you would also usually include a statement of potential conflicts of interest and references.

Qualification Statements can also be used to sell your firm to a potential client when they don’t even have a project yet. Say you meet up with a client and they learn you are skilled at green design. You could give them a Qualification Statement with green design work samples for them to reference if they have a related project come up.

Make Your Statement of Qualifications Great

Focus on Your Unique Skills

Chances are, if you state in your proposal that you are uniquely qualified for a project and proceed to list reasons you are unique, most other submitting firms will also include some of your “unique” qualifications in their proposal. Your key to winning great projects is knowing the one thing that you can do that other firms cannot do or that they cannot do as well. Do you provide exceptional client service and make it a point to go above and beyond for clients? Do you have specialized technical expertise? Spend time to find your strength and to develop it. Fully understand it, so, when the time comes, you can smoothly explain your strength to potential clients.

If you cannot find something that is truly unique about your firm:

  • be brutally honest with yourself,
  • find something you could be good at, and
  • do the work to get good at it.

Most small firms will partner with other firms on proposals. They do not have the capacity to take on most projects alone. Even before you partner with another firm, one of the first things they will want to know is your strengths. Knowing your strengths will win you more proposals and have more firms wanting to partner with you.

Tell a Great Story

In appropriate areas of the Statement of Qualifications, like the professional history, tell whatever great story you have. Are the reasons you started your firm or the way it started up interesting? Does one of the team members have an interesting story? Any exciting projects you have worked on? Do you donate 50% of your fees to a charity you are associated with? Hunt these great stories down and highlight them.

Use Your Strongest Graphics

As architects, charts, tables, and, especially pictures, are an integral part of our proposals. Clients want to see what past projects you have worked on with their own eyes – they want to be able to see what their project might look like. Use your pictures to further your message. Go with your best work that shows off your unique skills or that illustrates your interesting story. Cut out any graphic that muddies your message.

Big Picture Questions

When working on a new proposal, there are several things you should keep in mind during the process. Pondering these questions will make your proposal more helpful to the client and, ultimately, make you more successful.

Is it worth your time and resources to submit a proposal on this project?

One of the most important things to consider when writing a proposal is if you shouldn’t write a proposal. Proposals take a lot of time and money. Don’t just submit, because you think you should.

Separate each RFP into three categories: high chance of winning, moderate chance of winning, and low chance of winning. Mostly go after projects with a high chance of winning. Look individually at those projects with a moderate chance of winning. Only allow a portion of the proposals you send out to be in this category.

If you think there is no way you can win a project, listen to that. Take a hard look at the project. Is there nothing that could bump your chances of winning into the moderate category? If there is truly nothing, then move on. It isn’t worth your time and effort. Plus, winning and losing is often psychological. If your team is experiencing too many loses - even if they have lots of wins – they can start to feel down.

Do you fully understand what your client needs?

One of the biggest mistakes people make is not taking the time to fully understand what the client needs. Sometimes even the clients aren’t sure what they need. Make the effort to understand the problem, so you can give them the best solution. Take the opportunity to ask questions during the meetings and tailor your proposal to respond to the answers they give.

Are there any problems the client might run into that you can address now?

Often, the client will get proposals with the same things in them. After all, how many variations on a building design can you find? Most proposals address only the project as presented by the client. They don’t go any further. This is a chance to show clients that you have their interests at the forefront, you know their project and have been through projects like it before, and you are prepared for multiple curve balls. They want to know they can trust you.

If a request for a proposal comes in for a building, look at what other aspects the client might need help with. Will they potentially need help with legal or permitting matters? Is there some technical aspect of the project they haven’t considered yet? Provide the solution to those problems as an optional part of your proposal.

80/20 Approach to Fees

When you go into most stores or restaurants, you can see a wide variety of prices. However, most of the prices will be on the lower to medium range, with only a few highly priced items. This approach is called the 80/20 demand curve. You will mainly have two types of clients: those with more time than money and those with more money than time.

If you submit proposals with only one fee, you will be chasing away some clients who can’t afford what you are suggesting and disappointing some clients who are willing to pay more for premium service. Cater to all these people at once by providing multiple fees within your proposal. This can lead to up to a 27% revenue increase for your firm.

Here are a few rules to follow when using this approach:

  1. Create a basic package and add additional services for other fee packages.

    Start with the basics and work your way up. Your basic package should be complete enough, so clients won’t feel like they are missing out.

  2. Make each package simple.

    Don’t get so in depth your clients get lost. Make it simple so they know what they will be getting and how it will impact them.

  3. Go with images to present the packages.

    Use pictures to clearly display each package. This makes the difference between the packages easier to understand. Pictures are simple and can be universally understood. Again, simple and easy to understand is the goal.

  4. Pull out all the stops for your highest-level package.

    There are some clients who have more money than time. Tailor your highest-level package to them. Make this package very appealing by paying attention to things the client mentions they hate doing and offer to do them for them. Don’t go overboard and offer services you are not capable of providing.

  5. Individualize each fee tier with a name.

    Give each fee tier a name, like: Basic, Premium, and Executive. This will make it easier to discuss in marketing and make the structure easier for your clients to understand.

  6. Focus on the benefits of your service.

    You want your clients to quickly understand what each fee level will bring them and how it will impact them. Features explain what the service is, and benefits explain how they help the client. Focus on the benefits.

Hybrid Proposal Fees

Hybrid proposals situate the architect’s fees as somewhat between a flat fee and a percentage-based fee. This type of proposal works best for residential projects or some small commercial projects. Essentially, you work at a flat rate until the project’s scope and budget are solidified. Once the total cost of the project’s construction has been determined, your fee after that point would be a percentage of that total cost.

Why Should You Use A Hybrid Proposal Fee Structure?

  1. You can easily apply the same structure to every project and create a template.
  2. Protects you, the Architect, from unpaid invoices and indecisive clients by guaranteeing you a fair share of the fees before work begins.
  3. Clearly outlines responsibilities for all involved.
  4. Creates fees that are fair for both you and the client. Also, increases the client’s awareness of additional fees that make up the total cost of the project, like the architect’s fees.

Actionable Takeaways

  1. Ask yourself the big picture questions before each proposal.
  2. Understand fully what the client is asking for and what else you can give them.
  3. Go with a fee structure that makes the most sense for you, the client, and the project.

Additional Resources

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