How much does planning, design and fabrication cost?

We are often asked this question.  Additionally, explaining budgeting to clients is an educational process.  Our service and product is not an everyday thing to purchase and it can be confusing to know what a Woolly Mammoth model or a workshop might cost.  Here are some tools you can use to think about it logically.


For some reason, this seems to be a hard concept for people to grasp.  Yet, if staff are traveling, on the phone, writing, designing or building something those hours have to be paid for.  Much of this time seems to confuse people on why it costs money.  Yet a project manager is spending hours when they are budgeting, getting quotes for materials or spending time with a client trying to find a photo.  These seem to be difficult things for people to pay for and it is necessary for a successful project.  Unfortunately, some hours do not always seem tangible even though they add value to the project.  You can logically think about these hours when trying to think about how much something would cost.  The hourly rates of most firms also include a portion to cover overhead expenses like computers, a building, a desk, phone equipment, accountants (yes, doing tax work adds a lot of expense that is frustrating), and human resources.


All projects include some material costs, even design and planning.  Most of the time, things like paper and ink are built into the hourly rate.  Yet, that material is necessary to complete a project.  For fabrication there are many potential materials.  The prices of materials fluctuate with the market, like wood and steel.


Whether we are FedExing a document or filling a semi with exhibits, this will cost some dollars.


There is travel time which has to be paid for as staff does not work for free.  And there are hotels, dining, mileage, flights and rental cars, too.


If a project is delayed months or years, prices tend to go up.  We recently budgeted for purchasing many different props for a project.  We created the budget over six months ago and the fabrication portion of the project was delayed.  Props that were priced at $100 over six months ago are now coming in at $115 or more.  Additionally, if subcontractors give quotes to help you create a budget for a client their pricing is often only good for 30 days.  If their capacity books up and the schedule is not lengthened, there is a cost for a rush on the job.  Maybe they have to pay overtime to get it done within schedule.  Sometimes they just can’t fit it in at a later date at all and then you have to get new quotes.  If a project is delayed it messes with a company’s staff availability and planning.  It can cause overtime and much more.  Inflation, changes in material prices and the cost of labor fluctuate and this can cause prices to change as quickly as 30 days.

Industry Pricing Guidelines[1]

Listed below are general industry pricing guidelines for interpretive exhibit design and fabrication projects. Certain projects are composed of simple exhibit units at a relatively low cost (price/sq. ft.) and other projects are composed of complex multi-media exhibit units at a higher cost. The majority of projects are a mix of both types. The following cost breakdowns serve simply as range indicators:

$200 – $300 Per Square FootConventional cases, pedestals, panels with printed graphics and copy, mounted photographs, and some artifacts. Simple audiovisuals, in the form of slides and auto-repeaters. Simple dioramas and custom artwork.

$300 – $500 Per Square FootWalk-in dioramas or replicated environments. May include some electronic exhibits and/or computer interactives, such as games and/or short films. May include creative artwork and custom background murals. Audiovisual is more complex in this price range with custom photography, and special effects. Controlled climate artifact preservation.

$500+ Per Square FootAbove, plus highly interactive exhibits and complex audiovisual, multimedia presentations, animated figures, and full sensory immersion exhibits.

[1] Veverka, John A. Interpretive Master Planning. Tustin: Acorn Naturalists, 1998.

Brochu, Lisa. Interpretive Planning. Fort Collins: Interpress, 2003.