Is Regulation the Answer to Fee Madness?
Is reintroducing fee scales and further regulation the solution to fee slashing and ‘the race for the bottom’ among architects? Is this really feasible in a world of increasing globalisation and diversification of service providers? Ceilidh Higgins considers other options.
Recently I read this article by Shaun Carter, immediate past president of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects and a principal architect at Carter Williamson Architects. It’s really great to see Shaun speaking out on the issues of fees – and what he describes as the ‘existential crisis’ of fee madness – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ of architecture as a profession.
Immediately after reading the article, I felt compelled to join the conversation and comment – and then realised I had the beginning of another article on fees forming in my mind. Fees are a topic I have frequently written about over the five years I have been writing my blog The Midnight Lunch (from The art (or is that science) of architecture fees to talking about fees and BIMonomics and more recently Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours), and so Shaun’s article was of great interest to me. Essentially he proposes that the solution is regulation across three platforms – minimum fees (essentially a return to fee scales), government as a model client and limiting architecture graduates.
Is regulation, restrictive trade practices or collective bargaining the right answer? While I used to think that maybe regulation could be a solution, I wonder how does regulation in NSW (or in any other Australian state) solve a problem that is national, but also potentially global? How can you regulate at the edges of architecture – for example in fields where architects and interior designers compete? Do we really believe we can regulate if your competition is Google or Amazon? (Right now in the USA I think its the other way around … Amazon are practically setting the regulations with the offers that came in from cities determined to win Amazon 2 HQ!) So, personally, I don’t think regulation, in particular fee scales is the answer.
However, that doesn’t mean there is not a place for advocacy and education – both of architects and of clients. I agree with Shaun that “Clients don’t recognize that their service is cut-priced, but have the same expectations as a good, fee-paying client.” Fees have dropped so far that many clients, including project managers, would have no idea of the real cost of the work they are bidding, only ‘market rates’. Many clients have no idea of the amount of hours that go into designing and documenting a building or a fitout – I’ve had more than one project manager assume that my job is done after concept design “don’t you just hand it over to the engineers then?”
I’d love to see both the Board of Architects and the Institute take leading roles on the issue of cut priced fees and client education, alongside of other organisations working in the design of buildings – the ACA, the DIA, Consult Australia, Engineers Australia and more. This isn’t just an issue for architects but for all design professionals.
One of the “frequent offenders” clients guilty of this is our own government – at all levels across a wide variety of agencies and institutions. Cut-throat fee bidding in government work where price is the only criteria has been a problem for years. Back in 2014 I published this piece on one architect who tried to take a stand against this practice, after uncovering one government agency who admitted they would have to accept a tender of zero if pre-qualified firm chose to submit it. (I also commented on this as ‘madness’ but without the great acronym!)
Maybe if you don’t work in the government sector, you believe that the fact these firms have been in business for long enough, with enough of a reputation and standing to be pre-qualified for government work, that they wouldn’t engage in such foolish business tactics. But when the work is low (or even often when it’s not), it’s such common practice as to be the norm. And then it’s paid for by the staff (even by the principals and directors) working long hours for free or by compromising the quality of documentation – thereby driving up construction costs and waste. As mentioned in Shaun’s article, there is no way that low fees don’t equate to lowered quality of service. Even if a company is spending the same hours on the project – if many of those hours are unpaid overtime the quality of the work is lower. (There is so much evidence that working 50 or more hours a week compromises the quality of your work).
Shaun’s call for Government to lead the way as a model client is a fantastic idea (and while we are at it, perhaps some model client contracts from Government where risk is fairly distributed and copyright ownership retained?) I agree that if our government at all levels takes the lead in demonstrating the value of good design and the better outcomes that could be achieved, it is more likely more private companies would follow. While I’ll admit, initially this is regulation, I’d perceive it more as leadership by Government, rather than purely a regulative measure.
Leadership needs education. Everyone who designs needs to be part of educating our clients, but advocacy could help make a difference. Not just for today’s clients, but by educating tomorrow’s clients to appreciate design. In Scandinavia, design education starts in primary school and an appreciation of design is a part of the culture. More recently, Australians too are coming to appreciate design, you see this in the quality of our newer cafes, restaurants and shopping centres and in our obsession with home renovation reality TV. But “clients need to understand that design excellence costs money” (and takes time). This is where the home renovation shows do professionals no favours. Where are the shows about architects or interior designers? Other than Grand Designs, notably absent.
For too long design has been undervalued in Australia, and this is because we need real evidence to back up and underpin this education. Evidence that will prove to everyone – clients, project managers, even builders and the architects/designers themselves that design really does add value. To do this we need more research, research like the new RASP project, that sets out to prove the value of design through the question “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?” While this research relates purely to architects and residential design, there are so many possibilities for commercial, institutional and other sectors to benefit from similar projects. The retail sector already knows it, and has long invested in research to understand how design drives consumer behavior, and the payoff is clear and direct. In other sectors the questions and the payoff is not so straightforward. The problem is that individual clients or practices can’t afford to fund this research. At the University of Sydney around 100 workplaces have participated in the BOSSA project for post occupancy evaluations – how much more extensive would this dataset be if we have if every government workplace had a post occupancy evaluation? Again, this is another area where the Government could play a leading part. Why isn’t the CSIRO involved in this kind of research? Improving the design of our workplaces could be a key means of improving our national productivity.
While good design does cost money, our professions need to also take responsibility for productivity and efficiency. While we might have BIM capable software, there is so much wasted human capital and time in most architecture practices. Our actual fees might be a lot lower if we invested more in technology and training. The whole of the construction industry is guilty of not investing in software, training or automation. Is this because of a lack of education at leadership level, a lack of understanding of how technology can benefit us or is it fear of change, a distrust of technology and of individually being left behind? Or are we now in a vicious cycle of low fees, with nothing to invest? Whatever the root cause, our industry will be left behind if we don’t invest in technology. I’ve written in the past about the coming wave of automation, (Will a Robot take my Job? and Is Disruptive Innovation Possible in the Construction Industry and more recently, I’m a designer and I job share with an AI) – if you didn’t know, it’s already here. If you have not started to think about how you can automate routine parts of your practice you will be left behind. When our fees are so low already, how can we afford not to automate where practical? Why should we be calculating the space for fire stairs or toilets when a computer can do this so much more efficiently that we can.
We don’t just need to educate clients, but we also need to train young architects and designers more in business – and even more so, in innovation and entrepreneurship. Architects might not feel that traditional business and accounting is their thing – but innovative ways to develop new business could be more appealing. Especially if we continue to train architects in such numbers – we need to train them to expect to be other things than a traditional architect, because there will not be nearly enough jobs. Maybe we don’t need to limit the number of graduates, but to value architectural training as the background to many other avenues of design thinking. If the next generation are nimble and accept change, and learn how to keep learning throughout their careers – maybe they will take their valuable design thinking into broader roles. I am constantly surprised at how architecture and interior design are creative professions but so many practitioners are so resistant to change (how many architecture practices do you know who have implemented activity based working…)
We can’t just expect the universities to teach business awareness though. For too long in too many practices, fees and charge out rates have been too secret – something that graduates are not expected or even often allowed to know about. Everyone at all levels should understand the fee budget and how their work contributes – just like when a client doesn’t tell us their budget, how can you expect someone to understand how their time contributes to the job cost if you never shares any information with them?
Finally, we need to think about how we charge. The world has moved on from dollars per hour. The ability to make money is no longer linked to human capital. This is the major lesson for all professions where we have historically charged by the hour. So I think we need to be thinking about value based fees, and about not fee scales. I’ve never worked in a time of fee scales, but I can’t see how fee scales in a time of globalisation and diversification are going to protect our jobs and fees. Fee scales won’t stop Amazon or WeWork from taking over the traditional roles of architects.
So what is a value based fee? The value of your work, the value of your ideas. I’ve written in a lot more detail previously on this topic in the article Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours. If we start to think and talk about fees in terms of our value, and the value of our work – can we continue to justify cut throat fees in our own minds? Aren’t we devaluing our own work that way? Of course when clients don’t value our work and our profession doesn’t value our work – we have a problem. So thats why proving our value to others is also a key part of the solution.
I agree with Shaun – three things need to change – although my three are different:
- We need to value ourselves;
- We need to invest in the future; and
- Our clients and those who occupy our buildings and spaces need to value us
Ceilidh’s speciality is work – both the places we work and the way we work. Her day job is Senior Associate and Interior Design Leader at Custance Associates, where she specialises in workplace strategy and design, delivering workplace projects from as small as five people through to 1000 people or more. Outside of work, Ceilidh researches, writes and speculates on the future of work – both as a place and the processes of working within the AEC industry – and the impacts of technology upon both. You can find her writing at themidnightlunch.com
This article is republished from The Midnight Lunch with permission.
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