Fees, Remuneration & Wellbeing

10 November 2022

ACA CEO Angelina Pillai was recently invited to comment on the results of the Monash Wellbeing of Architecture Survey, which revealed concerning statistics about the impact of work practices on the mental wellbeing of people working in the profession.

The survey revealed a resounding concern about the influence and impact of low fees on wellbeing in the profession, with a strong perception that societal under-valuing of architectural design related to equally undervalued financial investment. Many participants spoke of structural impediments to fair remuneration, namely a “race to the bottom” in fee-undercutting and poor procurement practices that cyclically led to unrealistic deadlines, long hours and overtime, and low pay.

A significant proportion of respondents spoke about the direct impact of fees and remuneration on their wellbeing. Some spoke of personal financial struggles, identified as the result of poor remuneration, which, in turn, is seen to be linked with low fees charged.

The survey found that “architects had a lower level of subjective quality of life than those working in other sectors and experience elevated levels of psychological distress and higher-than-average levels of burnout”. In the following article, Angelina Pillai offers the ACA’s perspective on these results.

This article is republished from ArchitectureAU – Fees and Remuneration: is the juice worth the squeeze? 

Fees, remuneration and their interconnectedness with the value of architecture have been significant issues in the profession for decades. At the ACA, we have been aware of this through anecdotal evidence and observations, member feedback and intermittent pulse-check surveys. The evidence from The Wellbeing of Architects survey provides data that cannot be ignored, validating how serious these issues are in terms of wellbeing and the human cost of poor practices.

The ACA is promoting a shift in how we approach fee calculation and the running of a practice, to focus on business-oriented, sustainable and equitable models as enablers to improved cultural outcomes.

But there are a number of challenges associated with this shift. The first is not about what to charge, but how to charge. As ACA national secretary Paul Viney advises, fee scales are not generally the solution. Using the ACA’s Time/Cost Calculator Guide, a practice can accurately work out the cost of all business activities through a detailed breakdown. The calculator is also a benchmarking tool, enabling a comparison of office overheads between similar-sized practices. ACA surveys indicate that more than 30% of firms do not have a resource management system; this can contribute to a culture of long hours and unpaid overtime, which leads to underpaid staff and, in the worst cases, interns being used for illegal commercial gain.

The second challenge relates to employment conditions and pay. The ACA encourages practices and employees to know their award. The 2020 ACA salary survey showed that 14% of practices are responsible for wage theft because they are paying beneath the award. While some practices are inadvertently doing this, it remains unacceptable. We strongly urge architectural practices to familiarise themselves with the relevant awards and to use them as minimums, not as maximums.

The third challenge is to shift the pendulum on the profession’s culture – especially, as one survey respondent noted, since design “is becoming more valuable in the community, but the reflection in architectural salaries is poor”. Don’t undervalue your own architectural worth. When you see a doctor, lawyer or accountant, you seldom barter with them on their fees. Don’t let others do the same with you. If architecture practices are committed to equitable conditions for all, then that should extend to what is expected of clients.

The fourth challenge is increased advocacy. The ACA, together with other industry bodies, needs to have a strong, firm voice to ensure that the value of architects and architecture is recognised, respected, and properly remunerated and resourced. We also need governments to be model “clients” who advocate for improved procurement processes and contract conditions, rather than being part of the problem. Further, we need more research and benchmarking. As ACA national president John Held observes:

“We don’t value design because we don’t price the cost of poorly designed buildings or cities. We don’t value good documentation because we don’t directly see the risks and costs associated with shoddy documents. We don’t value fair contracts because we don’t realise the cost of the risks involved. We don’t value independent contract administration because often the client isn’t even aware of the future costs of poor construction or substitutions of materials.”

As he suggests, “A national approach to practice research … could lay the foundation of persuasive arguments for the value of our work.

Finally, the ACA has established an Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum to provide a space for conversations, ideas, resources and collaboration to collectively champion wellbeing initiatives across the profession and offer support. Being part of The Wellbeing of Architects project is part of our commitment.

For the ACA, the evidence that this survey has provided is poignant, and a clear signal that we need to strengthen our mission. More broadly, we all have a responsibility to step up and make a difference, using our shared agency and working as a collective.

Further Reading

  1. Calculating fees – part one: Working out your break-even point” – Madeleine Swain & Paul Viney, ACA website, 9 March 2022, republished from Architectural Review.
  2. Business and practice management systems survey results” – Management for Design in partnership with the ACA, December 2020.
  3. The Architects Award – A short overview of the Architects Award, the ACA’s role in negotiating it and the assistance it can provide members.
  4. ACA Salary Surveys – Reports on previous salary survey findings, including the most recent survey report in mid-2022.
  5. Fee redemption: A mutually assured future” – John Held, ACA website, 19 June 2018.
  6. Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum – The AMWF Toolkit, practice case studies and other resources.