President’s Comment – November 2021

John Held , 10 November 2021

The effects of low fees and long hours on mental wellbeing in the architecture profession is becoming increasingly clear, but if fees went up, would the time or the profit trickle down? John Held explores the issues.

Most practice owners know that sinking feeling when work has dried up, the forward cash flow looks precarious, and in a few months’ time there won’t even be enough income to feed the cat, let alone the staff that you depend on. What do I have to do to win this next job? And, if I win it, can I service it properly for that discounted fee for the next couple of years?

Or (for some at the moment) there is the opposite: not being able to cope with the workload or find the right staff. Such are the boom-and-bust cycles of this construction profession, which are not always the best conditions for developing a vibrant, rewarding, long-term architectural career.

The recent Parlour Friday session to update us on Naomi Stead’s Monash Uni-led Mental Wellbeing project was informative, challenging, and an indicator of how far the profession still has to go. Their ability to demonstrate that measures of architect’s wellbeing is lower than the general populace is interesting, as are the reasons given for those results.

It also led to some good conversations with the young architects around the table afterwards. The survey results show there are strong links between wellbeing, time allowances given for tasks, unpaid overtime and fee discounting. Would you recommend your career to a high school student? How can we ensure projects have adequate time and fee allowances? And why do so many leave the profession, and where do they go?

Probably no-one questions that fee cutting is a bad thing generally and that architect’s work isn’t valued enough. But another question is: would an increase in fees fix everything? There would be a lot of owners of architectural practices who don’t get paid much of a premium (if anything) for the risks involved – and why many firms find succession planning hard. At the same time, there are probably owners who are doing very well and not sharing much of it with their staff, or assume that young and enthusiastic professionals want to work all those unpaid hours to achieve the perfect design. So, if fees would go up, would the time or the profit trickle down??

The opposite side of the coin is time taken to do things properly – the complaints about poor quality documentation don’t seem to go away – a mix of deskilling of the less glamorous aspects of the profession and a lack of time to do it. The constant pressure to compact the program is also noticeable, and it’s usually the design and documentation time that gets squeezed. It’s interesting when builders say to you, “I wish your clients would pay you properly to do good documentation, so it was easier to build”.

The NSW Building Commissioner, David Chandler, recognises the value of thorough documentation in increasing the quality of buildings, and a minimum standard of coordinated documentation is an integral part of the NSW Design and Building Practitioners Act. Will this set a standard that other clients come to expect?  Fully coordinated, clear and complete documentation takes time and money, but it does reduce risk and increase quality. We need to convince clients that spending money getting it right before construction starts is valuable, and we need to lobby government clients to ensure they tender on value, not the lowest fee.

The implementation of the ACA Time and Cost Calculator over the last ten years has not been to set “minimum” fees – we know that even in the days of published fee guides they were used as a basis for discounting. It has rather been as a tool to understand what each architect’s costs are. How long it should take to do a particular type and size of project, how the risk we take is priced, what the added value we bring to the project will be, and therefore what it should cost to do the work?  The questions should then be: how do I convince the client they are getting good value, and does this fee mean my team can produced well-designed, well-documented projects and still have a life?

Economics and wellbeing collide when we juggle this equation. There’s a lot more research needed, and our professional futures rely on getting the right answer.